Contributor(s)International Prison Observatory - Belgian section

The penitentiary system

There are 37 adult prisons in Belgium; 29 for men, seven coed prisons and one women’s prison. These figures include a prison in Tillburg, Netherlands rented by Belgium. In addition, there are six juvenile facilities and two social defense (mental health) institutions.

Adult prisons are divided in two categories: Prisons for prisoners on remand (pre-trial) and ordinary prisons for sentenced prisoners, however most prisons detain both.

There are three different types of prisoner or ‘regimes’ inside each prison. These three ‘regimes’ are grouped and held together and follow different regulations inside the prison:

  • Open regime prisoners can move freely inside the prison.
  • Closed regime prisoners must stay in cells except for visits and activities.
  • Semi-open regime prisoners follow a hybrid.

Ideally, open regimes would be the standard for imprisonment. In reality, the open regime is applied as a privilege that can be easily granted or removed.

Certain prisons date back as far as 1911 and are quite badly maintained. The deplorable conditions at Forest and Antwerp prisons are regularly reported. An entire wing of the Forest prison was closed in 2015 because it was deemed unhygienic.

Older prisons are usually located in city centers. Newer prisons, built in the 1990’s are located in rural zones or in outer suburbs. Access to these prisons therefore is more difficult for staff, prisoner families and lawyers.

Three new prisons opened in 2014, Leuze-en- Hainaut, Beveren and Marche-en-Famenne. Two new prisoners are on the way, Termonde with 444 places and Haren with 1,200 places. All these form public-private partnerships. Private companies build, maintain and run certain services within the prison e.g. laundry, transport, etc. There is very little transparency around these prisons contracts and the real costs, leading to criticism from various associations, parliamentarians and the auditing court.

The number of penitentiary staff is insufficient and has further reduced from 2014 to 2015. The government announced budget cuts that will likely see the situation continue to worsen.

Every prison staff member, including heath staff, works for the Ministry of Justice. Health staff have been requesting for many years to move under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health. This proposed change is currently being reviewed.

When strikes occur in Belgian prisons, police officers are called in to replace prison guards and maintain order. Instances of verbal and physical violence by these ‘stand-in’ guards during strikes have been reported.

The penitentiary administration does not directly employ teachers, trainers or cultural workers and these occupations are left entirely to nonprofit organizations.

Guards-inmates ratio



Social workers-inmates ratio