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Prison revolutionary

In an act reminiscent of the anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunts in the '50s the Belgian authorities have refused to come clean about why Luk Vervaet has been  blacklisted from working in any of the country's prisons. To do so, they say, would threaten national security, national defence and public order. The Morning Star

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Seated serenely in a busy cafe in London's Shepherds Bush, Luk Vervaet seems an unlikely nemesis for Belgium's prison authorities.

Yet Vervaet's experiences in more than five years of dedicated work as a language teacher at St Gilles prison in Brussels led to his ostracisation by the service and eventual sacking last August for "security reasons."

His crime was a relentless agitation for prison reform against the anti-terror climate permeating Belgium and its legal system.

In an act reminiscent of the anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunts in the '50s the Belgian authorities have refused to come clean about why he's blacklisted from working in any of the country's prisons. To do so, they say, would threaten national security, national defence and public order.

But as Vervaet explains the background to his case it becomes increasingly clear that what the Belgian government is really scared of is the consciousness-raising he attempted among the prison's inmates.

At St Gilles many of the prisoners are from migrant families who have been hit first and hardest by the Europe-wide collapse of manufacturing industries.

"All that's left are temporary jobs or short-term contracts with no decent career prospects.

"This creates a culture of delinquency and trying to find another way out which is why many people end up in prison," Vervaet explains.

Compounding the difficulties migrants face is the fact that Brussels is a city of two languages - Dutch and French. Recognising the huge barriers ex-prisoners face in re-entering society, Vervaet saw learning Dutch as an opportunity for them to participate in life in all parts of the city and so improve their job prospects.

He also saw it as key to improving family life because it enables them to speak Dutch with their children, who are fluent because they go to local schools.

Vervaet noticed early on in his teaching career that his efforts to break down negative patterns of behaviour among inmates would be futile unless two key elements - respect and collective work - were in place.

Lack of these had largely contributed to their landing up in prison.

"I had this impression that they never got any respect from someone else except maybe from their mother or family. They were used to being regarded as useless and no-goods," Vervaet says forcefully.

"I started with the mindset that whatever you've done, I don't care. Let's start with a blank sheet, all over again. So I established a relationship of 'if you respect me, I respect you' and I maintained this even when there were deceptions."

When inmates who have volunteered for a course meet up for the first time, they have nothing in common and don't want to associate with other criminals whose situation is often worse than theirs, he says.

The first step is building their confidence to work together, no easy task when "one of the reasons they are criminals in the first place is because this collective element is not there" - society is in collapse and individualism is seen as the only escape route.

But in Vervaet's view reintegration into society is only possible if prisoners realise they have to organise themselves collectively to be able to function.

He had an open-door policy for his course, whether prisoners knew Dutch or not.

"I said to the those who knew: 'Help your mates and let them profit from your knowledge'‚" he enthuses.

"This little building up of mutual confidence was important, but it posed a threat to the prison system - the authorities don't like collective activity, it's a threat to their security."

Vervaet did not just make an impact "inside." He's written articles in some of Belgium's biggest newspapers attacking prison overcrowding, the lack of education facilities and the slave wages of inmates.

And he opposed the construction of new prisons in Belgium. "It's not because there are too many 'criminals' to lock up that you automatically have to build new jails," he argues.

"You have to question why there are problems of employment, education, discrimination and racism - these are the things you have to attack."

Along with the Belgian left and organisations like The Committee for the Freedom of Expression and Association (CLEA), Vervaet has been instrumental in highlighting the increasing criminalisation of the Muslim community and the rising number of people from Muslim and Arab backgrounds being locked up under continuously refined anti-terror laws.

"The political opposition has been criminalised by this anti-terror climate," he says.

And under his own steam Vervaet has exposed the inhumane treatment of the "prisons within prisons‚" inside jails like Bruges and Lantin where the so-called untreatable are caged in maximum-security units.

Vervaet's composure slips for the first time as he castigates the "indifference about things that are clearly a breach of any conception of human rights and how such inmates should be treated."

His attempts to expose the blatant injustices of the prison system appear to have reached a tipping point for the authorities. He knew his position was under threat but confessed "total surprise" at the brutal simplicity of the words "security reasons" given for his dismissal.

"They didn't say: 'You visited this place, or you did that, or you wrote this or you organised a demonstration there,' nothing, no word at all," he says.

Vervaet has since challenged the decision on three occasions in the courts. The first two confirmed the state's right to ban him and refuse him the right to see and respond to the evidence that he is a security risk.

But last month the Conseil D'Aoetat - the equivalent of Britain's Supreme Court - ordered the minister of justice to suspend the ban and allow Vervaet to respond to the evidence against him.

The education association which employs him has since written to the minister to request that Vervaet's annual contract to teach be renewed. But it remains to be seen whether the state will accept the ruling, setting a precedent for future cases, or find other justifications to keep him blacklisted.

It's inevitable, Vervaet says, that across Europe similar political and economic changes will lead to corresponding trends in the repression of working people. He stresses the need to strengthen links with progressive movements across the continent on issues such as "national identity."

"There's a huge debate in France on national identity and it's the same in Belgium and Holland. Everywhere the same issues and problems - but we are cut off from each other.

"We have to wake up and develop strategies on a European level."