Belgium: “complete failure” of the section for radicalised prisoners
Belgium was condemned on 24 April 2019 and will have to compensate several prisoners in the De-Radex section of the Ittre prison. Prisoners suspected to be recruiting members for jihadist organisations are isolated in these sections.
Nicolas Cohen is a lawyer at the Brussels Bar and a member of the board of directors for Prison Insider. He filed an appeal on behalf of these prisoners because of the treatment government has subjected them to. According to him, these conditions in De-Radex sections are not justified. Prison Insider asked him three questions.
The prisoners have nearly no fresh air. Their “courtyard” is a cage that is barely more than 30 metres square big and partially covered with concrete roofing.
Prison Insider. Why did you file an appeal in favour of the prisoners in the De-Radex section?
Nicolas Cohen. The De-Radex section was created in 2016. There, prisoners live in unacceptable conditions. Total restriction, including being deprived of contact with the outside world. As for the material conditions, they are deplorable. The prisoners have nearly no fresh air. Their “courtyard” is a cage that is barely more than 30 metres square big and partially covered with concrete roofing. Prisoners go there in groups of three persons and manage however they can. No more than five prisoners are allowed in the courtyard at a time (there are a total of 15 prisoners in the section.) The sport room is inside. After a long fight, religious services have become their only group activity.
Quite a few prisoners asked me to condemn these conditions. I decided to set up a collective action on their behalf. At first, I asked the prison administration for regular evaluation of this regime. Today, the presence of prisoners in this section cannot be justified by any form of control: they have no idea about the duration of their stay there. As discussions with the administration did not yield any positive result, we decided to go to court. Several actions have been taken. We wanted judges to come on site for observation, but none of these requests were granted.
Prisoners are kept in conditions similar to isolation, without providing them with the required guarantees. The law makes provision for a review to be carried out every two months to justify this isolation. After our requests for such controls were repeatedly refused, the Belgian State was condemned for misconduct by decision of the trial court.
The judgement is not final; we are going to work out a plan for a possible appeal.
PI. Are you pleased by the court’s decision? In practice, what changes do you expect to see?
NC. Well, symbolically, it is a very important decision. It proves that these prisoners are truly in an isolation regime. This was unfair to them because the prison administration had always claimed the conditions were equivalent to a normal prison regime. What absurdity! After such a long fight, we were finally heard by the judge.
If a prisoner is kept in isolation, the law demands that they be granted some guarantees. In our case, the judge stated that the conditions of detention in De-Radex were similar to that of an isolation regime, therefore, the Belgian State was guilty of not putting any control mechanism in place.
The damages/compensation pronounced by the court are moderate, one euro par detention day. The court stated that our evidence was insufficient. So, we had no right to request for a higher amount.
Once again, the court refused to go and observe the conditions for themself; as a result, the argument about the closed courtyard was not retained, even though it was well detailed. Some prisoners have been using this cage for the past three years. The judgement is not final; we are going to work out a plan for a possible appeal. However, the court’s recognition of a daily damage is a great victory.
This constant fear leads the administration to isolate as many persons as possible. It is a total failure.
PI. The imprisonment regime for radicalised prisoners is under experimentation in some other countries. What is your take on that?
NC The provisions I see today do not work. It is a pity that these prisoners are continuously being ostracised. For example, there is a shared visitation area where the De-Radex prisoners are mixed with the general prison population. If a De-Radex inmate speaks to another prisoner, the warders would come and interrogate this latter immediately. He could then be kept under special observation. The administration would begin to check if he is being radicalised. This constant fear leads the administration to isolate as many persons as possible. It is a total failure.
However, there are some services in Belgium that are trying to support the prisoners. One of the major solutions is that of rebuilding ties. The exact opposite of the prison world, which only means separation. Today, prison just breaks all social ties. Radicalised prisoners are human beings who need to find their feet again. They need something positive to hold on to in life, and this is completely impossible in prison.
Interview by Leila Lopes
Translated by Vivian Durmis and proofread by Avery Hudson