Prisoners to pilgrims: teenagers walk into a new life

Half-an-hour from Belgium’s capital, Brussels, lies an unlikely place to begin a pilgrimage: a cul-de-sac. Yet hundreds of teenagers have passed through to start a four-month, 1,550-mile journey by foot, taking them from incarceration to freedom

‘Santiago de Compostela, 2,496km’ reads the signpost.

It seems an improbable place to begin one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimages, here in a cul-de-sac not far from Brussels.

But since 1982, more than 350 teenagers have walked down this road at the beginning of a four-month journey through France to Spain, and at the end lies not only the tomb of St James, but the teenagers’ own freedom.

This cul-de-sac is home to the group Oikoten – a Greek word meaning both ‘away from home’ and ‘by one’s own force’.

Thirty years ago the group sought permission to take two teenagers out of prison and walk with them to Santiago. If they arrived, they would be free to go.

Sophie Boddez, one of the project managers, shows me into the meeting room of their converted barn. Here, hanging on the walls, are photographs from the pilgrimages of the past three decades. They are mostly of young men, bent under rucksacks, topless and burnt by the sun, smoking cigarettes and grinning at the camera.

“The whole idea,” Sophie says, as we sit down to talk, “is that we give the youngsters a different role in society from the one that they know.

“Normally they are seen as aggressive, delinquent boys, but here they are only pilgrims – nobody knows their story.”

“We can’t solve what went wrong for years in a few months. But they gain confidence and they learn things that will help them to overcome their problems in the future”

The teenagers get in contact with the organisation themselves. “We choose the ones who don’t have many other options,” adds Sophie. “At 17, they arrive at Oikoten saying ‘Nobody wants me, nobody can work with me. Can you please take me on the trip because I have nowhere else to go?’”

The adults who walk with them are paid but they are not professionals.

Oikoten prefers that each mentor does the walk only once, so that they too have a unique experience. Luc Peters arrives, a social worker in his 50s, who walked with two teenagers in 2006: Thomas was in an open prison for the first time for a string of drug-related offences, while Guillaume had spent the majority of his life in and out of different institutions.

The route is predetermined, but all other decisions are taken as a group.

They have a small stipend that lets them stay at the odd campsite or pilgrim refuge, but mostly they sleep out and cook their own meals. Occasionally they are offered a bed by someone whom they meet along the way.

“They have been told for most of their lives that they’re worth nothing,” says Luc, “and now someone has let them stay in their house and sent them off with a sandwich in the morning.” He describes how Guillaume turned to one family over dinner and said incredulously: “What the hell are you doing, letting two people like us into your house?”

Around 70% of teenagers complete the walk and reports demonstrate positive effects on the self esteem of participants and their reintegration into society. Yet determining the success of Oikoten’s method is complicated: “Often the effects show later on,” says Sophie.

When Oikoten celebrated its 25th birthday, people who had walked many years before brought their children along to show them their photos, which still remain on the walls. “That’s how you know it works,” says Sophie.

“A walk makes you think. You’re trying to give people the chance to experience a different world. A walk is a medicine. Prison is not a medicine”

She talks about the crossing of the Pyrenees as a symbolically important moment. “They say ‘I thought I wouldn’t make it to the top of the mountain, but I did’. They learn that difficult things happen, but you can get over it, you can make it. We can’t solve what went wrong for years in a few months. But they gain confidence and they learn things that will help them to overcome their problems in the future.”

Since I visited Belgium, Oikoten has fallen on hard times, hit, like state-funded projects everywhere, by deep cuts. For the time being they are keeping their heads above water, albeit with a diminished number of projects, which seems a tragedy when our traditional penal system seems so badly in need of reform.

When it emerged that three-quarters of the adults sentenced following the England riots in 2011 had a prior conviction, Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, wrote that Britain had a “broken penal system whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful.” According to Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, 60% of those given short sentences are re-convicted within a year of release.

“For a young person,” says Luc, “the best possible result of prison is that if the punishment is hard enough, they might not do it again. It’s better to find another solution – something that will make the offender think. That’s what a walk does, it makes you think. You’re trying to give people the chance to experiment, to experience a different world. Trying things, trying things again, without giving up, without being watched and judged. A walk is a medicine. Prison is not a medicine.”

Some names have been changed