Contributor(s)International Prison Observatory - Belgian section

Contact with the outside world

Detainees on remand (pre-trial) have the right to daily visits. Sentenced prisoners have the right to three visits per week, each lasting up to one hour. These visits are held at open plan ‘visit tables’. Visits are often cancelled due to lack of staff.

Visiting privileges can be restricted for disciplinary reasons and inmates can be denied open visits, instead receiving visitors behind glass. Visitation can be restricted or banned completely for security reasons. The Relais Enfant-Parents supervises visits from young children to their incarcerated parent, these visits are considered ‘additional’ to normal visiting rights and can take place up to three times a week.

Conjugal visits are permitted for sentenced prisoners. These are allowed once a month, two hours minimum and are held completely in private. The designated room must be equipped with a bed and sanitary products including soap, condoms, bed linens and towels. The room must be discreet and guarded by a trained guard. In practice, these rooms are rarely sufficiently isolated and inmates’ spouses are regularly subjected to insults or mockery.

Prisoners can request prison transfer for family reasons but the decision is left to the prison administration.

Correspondence is unlimited but can be subjected to controls. Only written exchanges with an attorney, the surveillance commission or the federal mediators are confidential.

Phone calls can be made daily, except where disciplinary or security measures are in place. The duration and timing for phone calls depends on the internal rules and regulations of each prison. Mons prison allows one 7-minute phone call per prisoner between 8am and 8pm. At the Forest prison, prisoners must make a request for a timeslot and calls last only 5 minutes. Phone calls are made from privately run phone booths that control dialed numbers and identify inmates.

Prisoners are charged for calls, which are at least 10% more expensive than outside the prison. Cellphones are forbidden and possession can result in up to 30 days confinement.

Ministers of Justice regularly propose political reforms leaning towards alternative sentencing, including electronic monitoring and probation. These proposals are usually delayed indefinately or are incorrectly focused on sentenced prisoners who would not be eligible for them.

Prisoners sentenced to less than three years can benefit from early release after serving one third of their sentence. Early release for longer sentances must be requested with a surveillance judge. In these cases, prisoners can only request early release after after serving one third of their sentence or two thirds for repeated offenders.

Each prison as its own written internal rules and regulations. Sometimes of these are unintelligible or untranslated and hardly accessible to prisoners.

Every prisoner has a right to legal aid. Prisoners may file a suit before the state council regarding disciplinary actions taken against them. The state council has a strict judicial responsibility over administrative decisions taken by the prison direction, regardless of the case.

Prisoners have also access to emergency proceedings before civil courts in matters regarding their conditions of detention. These proceedings are common law and don’t offer prisoners relief from their current situation. Additionaly, rulings are often delivered with a three months delay.

In Bamouhammad v. Belgium, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Belgian state did not remedy poor conditions of detention. The government has not implemented any measure to address the conditions or the ruling.

The most severe sentences are often accompanied by a ban on voting rights. In practice, all prisoners, even the ones allowed to vote, have difficulties voting. Prisoners can use proxy voting.

Belgium still needs to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment torture (OPCAT). There is no national preventive mechanism. A process of implementation began in 2016 with input from government and public representatives.