Special populations

Number and percentage of female prisoners

4.3 % (439)
/ Federal Public Service Justice

Variation in the number of female prisoners

an increase

The female prison population has been slightly increasing over the years. In January 2017 it reached a peak of 439 female prisoners (4.33% of the total). The administration does not publish specific figures regarding this prison population.

The places where women prisoners are held are of several kinds:

  • penal institutions exclusively for women (1)
  • units exclusively for women (8)

The women are accommodated in special sections of the eight establishments for men. Berkendael Prison in Brussels is the only institution to house only females.

The female sections usually run more smoothly than those for men. They have a more open detention regime. Meals, for example, are communal.

  • The last section for women opened in 2016 in Hoogstraten Prison.

There is an effective separation between men and women


Separation between men and women is strictly enforced in most prisons. In certain establishments, such as Marche-en-Famenne, co-ed activities are organised, including unsupervised visits between inmates.

Women are sometimes the “forgotten ones” in the penitentiary system. It’s common for them to have less access to job opportunities, leisure, and activities. They also do not benefit from certain forms of detention that men receive, such as semi-detention regime (outside during the day and inside the prison at night).

Conjugal visits are allowed for women


Pregnant women are housed in specific units or cells


Pregnant women are regularly locked up. Their pregnancy is rarely taken into consideration. It is common for a pregnant woman to share a cell with a smoker.

Pregnant women receive proper prenatal care


Prisoners are accompanied during their pregnancy by a medico-social worker from the Office of Birth and Childhood (OBC). They are also monitored by a physiotherapist, a gynaecologist, and a midwife.

Childbirth takes place in

  • outside care facilities
  • the penitentiary establishment

The women are generally sent to the hospital in the case of an emergency.

  • In Berkendael prison in Brussels, prisoners have been able to give birth in a civilian hospital since January 2017.

The use of instruments of restraint is forbidden during labour and childbirth


As of 2005, women are no longer handcuffed during labour. The women stay at the hospital for three to five days after giving birth. No family members are allowed in the room during labour and the father is notified by telephone or post.

Mothers are allowed to keep their children with them

yes, until 3 years old

Children born in prison can be left in their mother’s care until the age of three. Most are under one year old. Once the child reaches the age limit, they are sent to live with a family member or are placed in a foster home or an institution. The maintenance of family ties depends on the contact method authorised by the prison as well as the possibility that the children can visit their mother in prison. Volunteers with the Red Cross roaming service ensure their visitation by accompanying the children from their home to the prison. Family visits are organised by the Children-Parents Relay in Brussels and in Wallonia.

  • In January 2017, ten children were in prison with their mother.

Berkendael, Lantin and Bruges prisons have cells especially designed to accommodate mothers and infants. When these cells are all in use, additional mothers and children occupy regular cells, temporarily equipped for this situation. Sometimes they have to share this with another mother and child.

  • This situation is common in the Berkendael prison, which only has two nurseries provisioned for two children. In 2017, this prison accommodated five babies simultaneously. Lantin prison has four bedroom-nurseries and they are rarely all in use.

Social rights benefits (birth bonus or family allowances) are not clearly established for mothers who give birth in prison. It is difficult to access this information, and the division of powers between the federal state and federated entities is confusing.

The law bans the imprisonment of minors


Minimum age of imprisonment for minors

14 years old

Institutions meant for children are called Public Institutions for the Protection of Youth (PIPY). The regime can be open or closed; the court must opt for an open regime. A child must be placed in PIPY once they are twelve years old and in a closed regime from the age of 14.

Incarcerated minors


In Flanders, under certain conditions, minors in danger can be placed in a closed regime.
Statistics relating to juveniles in the Flanders justice system are not available.

Ministry in charge of incarcerated minors

the General Administration of Youth Assistance (GAYA) in Wallonia and the Jongerenwelzjin agency in Flanders.

Convicted minors are grouped into several categories: juveniles who are divested of their right to be judged as children and are transfer to the adult criminal system (“dessaisis”), juveniles protected by virtue of their youth, and unaccompanied foreign minors (UFMs). Foreign unaccompanied juveniles that are accused of committing infractions are subjected to bone testing to determine their age. The reliability of these tests and their interpretation are disputed.

“Dessaissis” juveniles are minors 16 years old or above who are tried as adults by a judge in the juvenile court because the judge considers it appropriate.

  • The United Nations Children’s Rights Committee says that this measure goes against their rights. The Francophone Minister’s preliminary draft decree for Youth Assistance proposes to limit its use (the preliminary draft was approved by the government in January 2018 and must be voted upon in Parliament).

The regime can be open or close; the court must opt for an open regime.

APIPY organizes 11 types of care, broken down into 19 educational projects. The different practical regimens in closed sections are as follows: observation and evaluation, observation and orientation, observation and emotional/relational development, individualization, and lastly education in closed regimes. A reform is currently underway to harmonize educational projects to offer a continuum of opportunities.

Institutions meant for children are called Public Institutions for the Protection of Youth (PIPY).

Wallonia has six PIPY and Flanders has four (known as gemeenschapsinstellingen, or community institutions). Support services also monitor post-discharge placement.

Since June of 2010, “dessaissis” juveniles have been incarcerated in special sections of closed centres. There are 13 places in Saint-Hubert and 16 in Tongres.

Psychiatric institutions have beds for juveniles in intensive care units. In 2015, they were reported to have 116 beds.

Figures on minors in prison are published

on an irregular basis

The statistics below concern minors placed by the juvenile court. They were published sporadically by the GAYA1. The latest figures, which emerged in 2013, indicated that they were responsible for 1,207 boys and 247 girls. Of the 1,207 boys:

  • 264 “dessaissis” boys were in a closed centre;
  • 199 boys were in a closed PIPY regimen ;
  • 744 boys were in an open regimen ;

Of the 247 girls, 13 were in a closed regimen.

  1. Statistics relating to juveniles in the Flanders justice system are not available. 

Minors in prison are separated from adults


The obligation to separate minors and majors was not really respected in Belgium until 2011.

The IM proposes five educational and therapeutic journey models (in both open and closed regimes): time out, observation, accompaniment, treatment, and an individualized residential journey.

The General Delegate for the Rights of the Child (DGDE) and the Children’s Rights Commissioner (KRC), children’s rights ombudsmen, control the detention places for minors. A “Commisie Van Toezicht” (Committee of Supervision), chaired by the KRC, was created in Flanders in January 2017, taking office in September. It has jurisdiction over IMs and Tongres’ closed centre. In January 2019, a similar supervisory commission is expected to take office in Wallonia and will have jurisdiction over the PIPY and closed centres.

43.8 % (4,430)
/ Federal Public Service Justice

Variation in the number of foreign prisoners

a decrease of 0.5%

130 nationalities are represented in the prison population. Among them, 9.7% are Moroccans, 5.3% Algerians, 3.3% Romanians, 3.1% Dutch, 2.1% French, 1.8% Albanians, 1.4% Italians, 1.2% Turks, 1.1% Tunisians and 2.2% from all ex-Yugoslavian countries.

The prison regulations are translated for foreign prisoners


Foreign prisoners can be assisted by an interpreter

in some cases

Interpreters are provided during police interrogations and court proceedings, but rarely within the prison. Several gaps are reported during interviews with the psychosocial service.

Foreign prisoners are entitled to legal aid


Undocumented immigration is punished by a three-month jail sentence increasing to six months for repeat offenders. However, the Court of Cassation has forbidden imprisonment on the sole basis of illegal stay.

Foreign prisoners are allowed to remain in the country after having served their sentence


The Belgian authorities can withdraw the residence permit from a foreign national prisoner serving their sentence in Belgium and declare a ban from the territory (sometimes called banishment or double punishment).

A law from February 2017, presented as part of the fight against terrorism, now authorizes the visa removal of any foreign national prisoners for reasons of public order or national security. Long-term residents may, even if born in Belgium, lose their right of residence for minor and / or very old offences.

  • For example, a young man in his twenties was sentenced in 2017 to several months of prison for driving without a licence. He grew up in Anderlecht and recently became a father. All of his family lives in Belgium. He received the order to leave the territory for Morocco, where he has never lived. The case of a Turkish foreign national prisoner accused of belonging to a terrorist organization in 2017 is reported by an association. He was quickly extradited to Germany in the application of a European arrest warrant.

The Foreigner’s Office obtains, on the basis of this new law, a list of every prisoner in illegal stay and then proceeds to a revaluation of their situation. This can lead to the revocation of their right to stay. The fear of systematic revocation is high.


  • The Constitutional Court cancelled, on 21 December 2017, the provisions of a law from 5 February 2016 stipulating that foreigners staying illegally could no longer benefit from adjustments of sentence and could only be transfer to the Office of Foreigners for their removal.

There are specific prison facilities for long-term prisoners


In February 2017, it was announced that an establishment will be built in Alost to accommodate people carrying out long sentences. This project is part of Masterplan III (see Premises).

Life sentences are banned


Life sentence is not applicable to minors who were under the age of 18 when the infraction took place.

People serving a life sentence

2.1 % (208)
/ Federal Public Service Justice

Variation in the number of people serving a life sentence

an increase of 1.4%

compared to 2014

Conditional release may be granted after having served at least 15 years of the sentence; this term can be as high as 23 years for any repeat criminal offence. The Sentence Enforcement Court (tribunal d’application des peines) examines applications for the conditional release of persons sentenced to life imprisonment.


  • 50-year-old Van Den Bleeken has been carrying out a life sentence since 1989. In 2014, he asked to receive assisted suicide. His request was approved, but the doctors refused, shortly before the act was implemented. The prisoner was eventually transferred to the Ghent psychiatric prison. His case highlights the deficiencies in the management of mental disorders in Belgian prisons.

    Fifteen other prisoners had previously asked for assisted suicide. One inmate in Belgium succeeded in getting euthanized. His request was processed due to his illness’s terminal phase.

35.7 %

/ Federal Public Service Justice

The high number of untried prisoners is a reminder that this form of detention is struggling to become the last resort in terms of judicial review before trial.

Minority or indigenous backgrounds are criteria for specific cell or unit assignment


The specific needs of prisoners are taken into account with regard to

  • religion
  • diet

The prosecution or imprisonment of a person on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity is banned


The administration tries, in principle, to build the most adapted confinement regime possible for them.

Assignment of transgender prisoners to a specific facility depends on

their biological sex

Transgender prisoners benefit from specific health care


  • The International Prison Observatory – Belgian section (OIP-SB) - points to the example of the male born person who stopped transition treatment, finding the process too difficult in confinement conditions. She is only authorized to wear female clothes inside the cell.

Conjugal visits are allowed for LGBTQI+ prisoners


Elderly prisoners (≥60 years)

4.4 % (447)
/ Federal Public Service Justice

They require a higher demand in care. No area is specifically reserved for them. Spaces, including beds, showers and courts, are not designed for wheelchair access. The food is not adapted for toothless people.

The prison directions are mandated to take appropriate measures for each case, depending on the needs of the elderly person. The medical team, most often overworked, cannot appropriately respond to their specific needs. Measures are taken usually only when the patient’s condition is deteriorating.

  • Adequate and timely support is rare. The OIP-SB reported in 2017 on a prisoner over 90 years old who was taken to the Medical-Surgical Centre (CMC) of the Saint-Gilles prison in order to benefit from adapted care and better treatment. He was then quickly transferred to a nursing home.

Older people can benefit from early release for health reasons. Conditional release is subject to unattainable criteria for a long-term offender: finding an occupation, a home, and a means of livelihood. In practice, some prisoners will never be able to leave prison and die with dignity.

Death penalty is abolished

yes, since 1996

It had not been applied since 1950.