Contributor(s)International Prison Observatory - Belgian section

Specific population

The prison population rose steadily between 1985 and 2014, from 5,677 to 11,769 prisoners without any significant increase in national crime rates. On December 31st 2015, there were 11,040 inmates.

A new medical facility for mentally ill offenders (200 beds) and more electronic monitoring drove this decrease. The number of people wearing ankle bracelets increased from 142 in 2001 to 1,981 in 2015.

58.5% of the Belgian prison population is sentenced prisoners, 31.2% are pre-trial prisoners on remand and 10% committed offenders (convicted but deemed not responsible for their actions by reason of insanity). The high number of pre-trial prisoners challenges the ‘presumption of innocence’ that is supposed to exist.

Women represent 4% of the Belgian prison population. Female prisoners in Belgium are held across 1 women-only prison, 7 co-ed prisons, 6 youth correctional facilities (for female minors), 2 mental facilities and also in specific areas of otherwise male prisons.

They were 443 women incarcerated in 2012, 502 in 2014, 462, in 2015 and 569 as of March 2016. Women who have committed minor offences and the criminally insane are not included in these numbers. The rise of female detainees necessitated the opening of a new female section in Flanders.

Gender segregation is strict, male and female inmates rarely encounter each other in prison. Prisons have mixed staff.

The prison regime for women tends to be less strict than for their male counterparts. Apart from the Berkendael prison in Brussels, it is also common for women have less work availability, choice of leisure activities and access to semi-open detention. Marneffe prison, for example, has a semi-open detention regime available to men only.

Maternity in detention

Pregnant women are regularly incarcerated without the pregnancy being taken into account. It is not uncommon, that pregnant inmates must share a cell with a smoking cellmate. Obstetrician / gynaecologist consultations are not regularly offered to pregnant prisoners except in Forest prison.

Upon reaching month 6 of pregnancy, prisoners are transferred to the Bruges prison, which is equipped with facilities. Delivery takes place in a civil hospital. Since 2005, after intervention by the Belgian delegate for Children’s Rights, handcuffs have been removed during labor. No family members are allowed to be present during childbirth. Fathers are informed via mail or phone. After birth, detainees are quickly transferred back to their cells and systems are not in place for postnatal care. In case of emergency, prisoners are generally sent back to the hospital.

Breastfeeding prisoners, who are summoned to appear court, must appear without their child. Children born in prison stay in the care of their mother until the age of three. In practice, most of these children are less than one year old. Once the child turns 3, the child is put in the care of a family member, or in a foster care family or institution.

The Berkendael, Lantin and Bruges prisons have specific cells for mothers with children. When those cells are full, any additional mother and child prisoners are placed in regular cells, sometimes sharing with another inmate. Toys and clothing are provided by either the prison administration or by nonprofit organizations. The Mons and Namur prisons do not have special facilities for mothers and children despite having held newborns.

The “Relais Enfant-Parents” is an independent nonprofit that aims to support and maintain bonds between children and incarcerated parents. The organization supported seven children living behind bars in Lantin prison in 2014, and three in early 2016.

It is unclear if mothers giving birth in detention can benefit from social welfare rights such as maternity and family allowance. Access to information is difficult and there is confusion within Belgium on the subject.

Female prisoners

4 %


Incarcerated minors include juveniles tried as adults in a special procedure (dessaisissement), minors within the category of ‘youth protection’ and unaccompanied foreign children.

Juveniles tried as adults are over the age of 16, ordered by a youth judge to be prosecuted under the same legal provisions applicable to adults. The UN Children’s Rights Committee considers this “dessaisissement” procedure a violation of children’s rights. The French-speaking Minister for youth has proposed limiting these proceedings but there has been no progress to this point.

Since 2010, juveniles tried as adults have been held in a special section of the Saint-Hubert youth correctional facility. Other imprisoned minors are allocated to one of the other special youth facilities Wauthier-Braine, Braine-le- Château, Fraipont, Tongres or Everberg.

Once the youths reach adulthood, they remain in their designated institution. Segregation between minors and adults has been strongly and effectively enforced since 2011.

For a long time, minors were unable to follow or access regular education. This has improved with changes made in 2015.

Unaccompanied foreign children, who often don’t have official paperwork, are tested using a bone age assessment to determine if they are adults or minors. Minors are sent to juvenile facilities and adults to regular prisons. The method used for such tests has been the subject of debate.

Juvenile prisoners

1 %

Foreign prisoners are overrepresented in Belgian prisons, making up nearly half of the prison population. Moroccans (10.5%), Algerians (6.6%), Romanians (3.4%), Dutch and French prisoners are the most represented.

Interpreters are provided during police questioning and court proceedings, but are rarely available in prison. As a result, language difficulties are reported during interviews with social services.

Undocumented immigration is punishable by a three months jail sentence, rising to six months for repeat offenses. However, the Belgian supreme court has forbidden imprisonment on the sole basis of illegal stay. From February 2016, undocumented immigrants must be transferred into the custody of the Immigration office before deportation on release from prison. Belgian authorities can apply a ten years entry ban for legal foreigners already sentenced to prison in Belgium, in effect a double penalty of imprisonment followed by deportation.

Foreign prisoners

0 %


There is no segregation by ethnicity or religion, with minorities held together with the general prison population. The only exceptions are radicalized detainees, who can be held separately.

People cannot be imprisoned on the basis of their political beliefs in Belgium. Encouraging terrorism became an offense in 2013, and concerns have been raised that this could lead to judicial mishandlings.

There are no special facilities or institutions for the elderly. Elderly prisoners can be granted reduced sentences or early release based solely on health concerns.

Two prisons in Belgium have special medical facilities (CMCs) where medical aid and surgery is performed. In cases where prisoners cannot be treated in these facilities, prisoners are transferred to civil hospitals. Additional security measures are required for prisoners in civil hospitals and these can delay adequate treatment.

Sick prisoners, for example those with hepatitis C, can be banned from prison work despite the low risk of spreading the illness.

Prisoners guilty by reason of insanity (criminally insane) are held in one of the three Social Defense Institutions (EDSs) of Wallonia. The waiting list for these institutions is usually between two to four years. Whilst waiting, prisoners stay in the psychiatric ward of regular prisons without receiving adequate care.

Two institutions of forensic psychiatry have been built in Flanders. A facility in Gent opened in 2014 and another in Antwerp is due to open in late 2016.