Incarceration rate (per 100,000 inhabitants)
The authorities publish official statistics on prison population
on an irregular basis
The prison service has a computerised record keeping system
Total number of prisoners
Number of admissions
Data not disclosed
Number of releases
Average length of imprisonment (in months)
Data not disclosed
Overcrowding is an issue for specific types of prison facilities
yes, remand prisons (maison d’arrêt)
These prisons hold inmates placed in preventative (provisional) custody and those serving short sentences.
Starting in 2010, Belgium rented 650 spots in Tilburg prison in the Netherlands, at a cost of 30 million euros per year. The government announced that the contract would end in 2016. Inmates from Wortel prison were transferred to Tilburg. The project was a failure, and in 2012 the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) criticised the climate of violence in the prison. The maintenance of family ties and reintegration into society proved difficult, and some French and Arabic-speaking prisoners found themselves isolated in an almost entirely Dutch-speaking environment.
Name of authority in charge of the prison service
Ministry of Justice
The official name of the prison service is the General Office of Penitentiary Establishments (Direction générale des établissements pénitentiaires, DGEPI).
Budget of the prison service
dollars - 542 million euros
Percentage of the ministerial budget allocated to the prison service
In October 2017, the Court of Audit issued a report on prison finances. The report stated that “internal prison audits are insufficient”, to the extent that it is impossible to “differentiate between theft, loss or withdrawal of funds for normal use”.
The prison service outsources the management of the facilities to private companies, either partially or fully
The prison service is overseen by a Federal Public Service (FPS), with a territorial split along regional linguistic lines: there is a Dutch-speaking regional directorate in the north, and a French-speaking regional directorate in the south. Inmates are assigned based on the language they speak.
There is confusion surrounding the division of responsibilities between the federal government and federated entities.
There are three types of prison regimes, generally grouped within different wings of the same prison:
- Open regime: inmates can move freely within the prison (Hoogstraten, Ruiselede, Saint-Hubert and Wortel).
- Closed regime: inmates are confined to their cells, and allowed out for visiting hours, work and activities. The majority of prisons are under this regime.
- Semi-open regime: this combines features of the two other regimes (Marneffe and Merksplas).
Although the open regime should be the norm, in reality it is the exception, only applied in four prisons. Open and semi-open regimes are often seen as a favour granted to the prisoner, that can be withdrawn at any time.
Prisons are divided into two categories: maisons d’arrêt for prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, and prisons for those who have been sentenced. In practice, numerous prisons house both of these populations.
The Federal Public Service Justice records a total of 34 prisons: two in Brussels, 16 in Flanders and 16 in Wallonia. According to our count, there are actually 38 prisons1:
- 34 men’s prisons, including:
- Eight women’s sections within men’s prisons
- Two special sections for mineurs dessaisis2, at Tongres and Saint-Hubert
- One women’s prison (Berkendael)
- One social protection establishment (établissement de défense sociale, EDS) in Paifve
- Two forensic psychiatry centers, in Ghent and Antwerp
The stated number of prisons can vary depending on classification criteria. For example, Forest-Berkendael prison in Brussels could be counted as two prisons, if Berkendael is counted as a separate establishment. These two prisons and the Saint-Gilles prison, located in Brussels, have recently come under the same management, so some count them as one prison. The prisons in Mons and Tournai are sometimes counted and sometimes not, depending on who’s doing the counting. ↩
Minors aged between 16 and 18 who are tried as adults. ↩
Total number of prison facilities
Total official capacity of the prison facilities
Variation in the capacity of the prison facilities
On January 1, 2017, the accommodation capacity of establishments was 9,216 places.
As of 2016, the smallest prison, Tongres, had 25 cells and an average of 21 inmates. For that same year, the largest prison, Lantin, had 694 cells and an average of 905 inmates (latest published figures).
The older prisons are generally located within towns and cities. The newer prisons, built in the 1990s, are situated either on the outskirts of towns and cities or in rural areas - making access more difficult for staff, visitors, families and lawyers.
Prison facilities are accessible by public transport
The facilities were built during several different periods:
- Eighteen prisons date from the 18th century
- Twelve prisons date from the 20th century
- Five were built in the 2000s
- Two forensic psychiatry centers date from the 1850s and the 1950s, respectively.
Since 2008, the prison facilities have been governed by a series of “Masterplans”. On 6 February 2017, the Minister of Justice announced “Masterplan III”, entailing the construction of a new prison (Vresse-sur-Semois), two halfway houses (Verviers and Léopolbourg) and the extension of three other establishments (Jamioulx, Ruiselde and Ypres). There are also plans for three new forensic psychiatry centers (Wavre, Alost and Paifve) and the renovation of Merkplas. This will increase the capacity of the prison system by several hundred places.
These new prisons, built through public-private partnerships (PPPs), have contemporary infrastructures, with separate toilet and shower blocks and a computer and telephone in each cell. They also represent a solution to endemic overpopulation. The Leuze prison in Hainaut, which opened in 2014 and has been at capacity since 2015, had an occupancy rate of 110% by October 2017.
The biggest ongoing project is a mega-prison in Haren, to the north of Brussels. This prison will house 1190 cells. There is no clear documentation explaining the reasons behind the construction of this prison. Successive governments have referred to a 2008 political agreement requiring them to build it, but there is no trace of such an agreement. The project will be carried out as a PPP, with a consortium of companies handling construction and ensuring maintenance for a period of 25 years. The government will begin paying rent as soon as the first inmate arrives. The estimated cost of the project is 3 billion euros over a period of 25 years.
For more information, see the report « Mégaprison de Bruxelles : Genèse d’un crime » (in French), published in October 2017.
Number of prison guards (FTE)
Data not disclosed
A strike notice was filed on 29 March at Forest, Saint-Gilles and Berkendael prisons. Staff members held a 24-hour strike to protest the serious staff shortage. The federal secretary of CGSP-Justice, Grégory Wallez, declared: “There are serious recruitment issues, and officers are burned out. Prison operations could suffer.”
Guard to prisoner ratio
1 : 1.5
The prison staff is represented by (a) union(s)
No minimum service is guaranteed in the case of strikes. The police the army are brought in to ensure the security and care of inmates, but they receive no specific training for work within the prison system. Numerous cases of verbal and physical violence towards inmates are recorded on these occasions.
Several Courts of First Instance, as well as the Brussels Court of Appeal, have called on the Belgian government to guarantee a minimum service, as proposed by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) for the past several years.
Staff at Saint-Gilles Prison held a 24-hour walk-out on 26 April. This decision was taken after an officer was assaulted by a prisoner. Prison employee unions protested against the issue of prison overcrowding and assaults. Discussions were held at a conciliation meeting, but “no real headway” was made, according to Grégory Wallez, federal secretary of the CGSP-Justice union.
Several prison union strike movements were announced, in April, in various prisons in the country (Huy, Forest, Saint-Gilles, Berkendael). They denounced the poor management of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign for the personnel, understaffing and deteriorating sanitary conditions, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic.
Prison officers receive a 13 week training program comprised of theory classes and fieldwork, carried out at the Prison Staff Training Center in Marneffe. No academic qualifications are required to begin training. Participants must be at least 20 years of age and hold Belgian nationality. Trainees are sometimes used in staff roles to make up personnel shortages.