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Sofie Demeyer

Two lawyers with two different missions within one non-profit organisation

We spoke to Dimitri Laes and Ine Van Seghbroeck, two experienced lawyers with a passion for volunteering at non-profit organisation De Rode Antraciet. Dimitri has been active as a lawyer in the Leuven region for 21 years, while Ine has worked as a lawyer at the Ghent Bar for 20 years. They both dedicate themselves in completely different ways to the same organisation, vzw De Rode Antraciet. Dimitri leads citizens around the Leuven court to explain the judicial process to them, while Ine gives breathing lessons to prisoners. Let's discover their fascinating stories.

What does non-profit organisation The Red Anthracite do?

Mr Laes: Asbl The Red Anthracite has several missions. On the one hand, it seeks people or organisations that can offer sports and cultural activities and educational programmes in prisons. On the other hand, the non-profit organisation wants to build a bridge between society outside prison walls and people inside prisons.

Mr Van Segbroeck: I am one of the volunteers who gives sports lessons in Oudenaarde prison. Specifically, I give breathing classes, similar to the ones I give outside the prison.

Mr Laes: The non-profit organisation also has an initiative called Kaffee Detinee, where people from outside prison are brought into contact with prisoners, their families and prison staff. In 2018, The Red Anthracite wanted to expand this project to explain the pre-detention phase, with a focus on judicial investigation and trial. They asked me, as a lawyer, to inform people about this, and I was up for it.

How did you get in touch with the non-profit organisation?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: My contact with the non-profit organisation came from my role as a lawyer. I realised that breathing techniques could be useful for inmates, given the overcrowding and lack of resources for reintegration in prisons. Breathing techniques are cost-effective, always available and can help in stressful situations and aggression management. In 2021, I raised this with the Oudenaarde prison warden, but the pandemic prevented the classes from starting. I kept pushing, however, and this summer he put me in touch with the sports officer of the non-profit association De Rode Antraciet. As a pilot project, I was already allowed to teach two breathing classes, and the response from the inmates was positive. Together with vzw De Rode Antraciet, I will now develop these lessons further.

How did things go in your classes?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: In prison, the main emphasis is on learning how people can calm down in stressful situations.

During a first lesson, I always give a very simple scientific explanation, some anatomy about our breathing, combined with simple exercises. With some breathing techniques you really feel immediate results and this way you do have everyone's attention immediately.

There were two sessions with eight prisoners each. Just like outside prison, I deliberately chose a small group so that I could give individual attention. After all, it is very important that someone watches exactly how you breathe and can give you personal tips.

Do you teach your breathing classes inside prison in the same way as outside?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: Actually, I do. In breath coaching, I always try to give very personal feedback. However, there is one difference: in prison, I did not reveal that I am a lawyer. I didn't feel that was necessary, on the contrary. These people already have their own lawyer, and I wanted to avoid getting legal questions about their case. Besides, it is also not about me, but about the prisoners' story and what I can help them with.

Were the prisoners open to your breathing lessons?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: Certainly. The prisoners who took my classes had enrolled there voluntarily, which shows that there was interest. But they also asked very specific questions, clearly already had some prior knowledge. There was a real hunger among them for more information. By the way, it was a very respectful and grateful audience.

Mr Laes on his work for the non-profit association

Mr Laes: My intention was to give more than just a tour of the court. I don't do that alone; I also involve someone from victim reception and an investigating judge in this initiative. This way, we explain not only what a lawyer does, but also exactly what magistrates do and how victims are supported.

We always start in the assizes room, where I let the participants choose freely from the chairs of lawyers, jurors, civil parties and defendants. At that point, they don't know they will be playing a role.

I always bring some gowns and I give them to people sitting in the lawyers' seats. I like to let them put on the gown themselves, and the fumbling with the buttons of the white gown always causes some hilarity and immediately breaks the ice.

I also highlight the role of the lawyer in this and try to involve them as much as possible by asking them what attitude they take in some concrete situations. In this way, I try to make people think about the work of a lawyer.

Those on the accused bench then suddenly become the accused, and someone else is a member of the jury. So we then embark on a role-play where everyone empathises with their role.

I am not asking for approval or disapproval of the actions of perpetrators; I am only asking for empathy. My mission succeeds once I notice that people gain a more nuanced perspective on what justice actually means.
Dimtri Laes, lawyer

Next, we go to the basement, where the cell complex is located. These cells are narrow, made entirely of concrete, with glass doors and bars. At that point, when I explain how to support your client emotionally in such a cell after a tough assize case, it usually gets quiet.

Does it add value to the non-profit organisation that you are a lawyer?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: I think so. I understand that the legal profession does not immediately come to people's minds when they think of counselling. Yet I consider lawyers to be specialised social workers.

I became a lawyer with the intention of helping people, and that remains my main motivation.
Ine Van Seghbroeck, lawyer

What do you learn in your volunteer work that is important to you as a lawyer?

Mr Van Seghbroeck: In my volunteer work, I take the time to listen to people calmly, and I find that this often leads to a quicker core of the case. I take this focus, a patient open attitude and giving people the space to tell what's on their mind, into my consultations as a lawyer.

Mr Laes: In my practice, I also always engage with my clients. An offender does not always understand a victim, and vice versa it is often even more difficult. Then I sometimes say, "Put yourself in the judge's shoes, what does he think about your version of the facts?" So I try to foster in my clients some understanding of the other side. If I manage to introduce a little more nuance, I am already happy.

Interested in the non-profit organisation?