Belgium: prison overcrowding reaches alarming levels

At present, there are 10,883 people locked up in the 36 prisons in the country, 1,862 more than full capacity, and this five years after federal justice minister Koen Geens arrived in his post promising to make a priority of bringing the numbers below 10,000.

In fact, that aim was achieved in the summer of 2018, when the numbers dropped to 9,984. Since then, however, the prison population has grown anew, thanks to a combination of harsher sentences, fewer early releases and a stricter policy on the conditions of remand – when people are imprisoned while awaiting trial, theoretically because they present a risk of fleeing the jurisdiction or tampering with evidence, or if they represent a threat to witnesses.

Questioned about the new figures, a spokesperson for Geens told the paper they are nevertheless lower than they were when the minister took office. “We are in urgent need of new prisons,” spokesperson Kathleen Van De Vijver said.

“The construction of new prisons in Haren and Dendermonde is being held up by delays in granting permits, as are planned renovations in Ypres prison and the construction in Leopoldsburg and Nieuw Antwerp,” she said.

The figure for the present includes 483 women prisoners, and 13 children sharing custody with their mothers. Of the national total of 36 prisons, 17 are in Flanders, and those alone account for 1,044 of the surplus of 1,862.

Meanwhile, unions representing prison officers announced they would go on strike at 22.00 this evening, stopping work for 24 hours. Prison staff complain of a shortage of officers, and not enough uniforms for those who are working. They also oppose a plan by the government to force prison officers to provide a minimum service even during a strike.

During the strike, there will be no transfers to court, no visits and no work for prisoners.