Capital city — Brussels
Incarceration rate (per 100,000 inhabit…i
Type of government
Human Development Index
Homicide rate (per 100,000 inhabitants)i
Name of authority in charge of the pris…
Total number of prisonersi
Average length of imprisonment (in mont…i
Total number of prison facilitiesi
An NPM has been established
Number and percentage of female prisone…
Death penalty is abolishediit had not been applied since 1950
Patients with an infectious disease, such as tuberculosis or scabies (disease associated with poor hygiene), are side-lined. Directors sometimes place prisoners with the same illness (diabetics, drug addicts, etc.) in the same section, usually for practical reasons like organising movement. These people are sometimes denied the right to work. As a result, medical services regularly see these inmates suffer from ostracisation or discrimination.
Prisoners’ loved ones sounded the alarm on COVID management. For the Belgian section of the International Prison Observatory (OIP-SB), the decisions made by prison staff over the last previous years had been “arbitrary and incoherent”. Health protocols had not been managed properly and visits were sometimes cut short or cancelled without a valid reason. Lawyer Marie Berquin, the organisation’s vice president, said, “We’re no longer in a state of emergency. Procedures should have been established with clear rules for every prisoner and that isn’t the case.”
Number of escapes
A prisoner escaped from Merkplas prison on 10 February. The police caught him while he was on foot. An investigation and disciplinary proceedings are in progress.
In their respective reports, the supervisory commissions deplore the poor hygiene conditions, dilapidation of buildings and the state of furniture and sanitary facilities, which are conducive to skin infections and respiratory problems.
Certain facilities are poorly maintained. The conditions of the prisons in Forest and Antwerp are regularly denounced, to the point that the supervisory commission chair called for the closure of Forest: “There are rats, mice; inmates have scabies, some live in 9 square meters with a chamber pot for three people, confined for 23 hours a day. This is unacceptable!”.
Unions decried unsanitary conditions in prisons. About 15 cells were closed due to fungus growth inside. “We have prisons where 10-15 cells are no longer functional because they’re full of fungus,” said Grégory Wallez of CGSP, the Belgian union representing public sector workers. “In the words of the Tournai mayor, it’s not fit for my dog and that says it all,” he said.
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.
Negotiations with the prison administration to reform the status of guards were underway. The role was to be split into two specialised tracks: “security assistant” and “prisoner chaperone”. The reform had several stated goals: to make the profession more attractive, to provide daily monitoring of incarcerated individuals and to improve the safety of facilities. The first tests of this new structure were slated to take place at the end of 2022 with the opening of the Haren prison
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.
Bruges prison staff began a 24-hour strike. Guards condemned violence, repeated assaults and a lack of staff in the psychiatric wing. The union representing those on strike demanded, in vain, that staff receive training in these issues.
Belgian correctional facilities experienced a strike wave. Brussels prison guards announced the strike on the evening of Sunday 2 January. It extended to the country’s southern facilities the following Monday with an end to the strike planned for Tuesday evening. Staff denounced highly unsuitable working conditions. Insufficient staff had become a real obstacle for guards who have to manage prison overcrowding.
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. ↩
The Justice Minister launched plans for halfway houses to serve as an alternative to incarceration for prisoners at the end of their sentences. A total of 15 houses may be on the table, which would make 720 new beds available. Short sentences would, however, be served in small 50-person prisons. This remains an idea for the time being.
Allegations of violence and ill-treatment have been reported during the year.
The warden and guards at Forest prison were on trial for physical and psychological violence committed against prisoners in 2014 and 2015, according to the Belga press agency. The accused were appealing an initial guilty verdict. The new judge set harsher sentences than the first judge, calling for two- and twenty-month suspended prison sentences for the accused.
Number and percentage of prisoners who work
More than 40% of the country’s prisoners allegedly had access to a job. Available work included carpentry, metalworking, bicycle repair, book binding and cheesemaking. Through the platform Cellmade, these professional pursuits would finance about one hundred “wellness” projects across the country’s prisons, including sport and cultural activities, programs for preventing drug use, gardening and more.
Physical and psychological violence are endemic in prisons, and may take various forms. Violence inflicted by staff is rarely overtly physical, but manifested in daily frustrations. Searches, especially body searches, are particularly sensitive moments which often lead to incidents. Prisoners can report individual or collective acts of physical violence to the prison’s Supervisory Board. After a complaint has been filed, the perpetrator(s) may be punished. However, it is sometimes difficult for inmates to report abuses; they rarely know the names of staff, who habitually hide their identification badge under their epaulettes. In September 2017, a modified circular reiterated the obligation that staff badges be worn and visible at all times, but this requirement is still widely ignored.
Sexual violence is rarely reported, due to feelings of shame and fear of reprisals.
Research from the University of Brussels (VUB) and the University Center for Forensic Medicine recommended that every incarcerated person convicted of sexual violence be subject to mandatory supervision and risk analysis. The research showed that a person who was treated and monitored by psychologists was 37% less likely to re-offend. The Flemish Minister for Justice, Zuhal Demir, hoped to make therapy, as well as regular risk analysis, mandatory for prisoners with a moderate to high risk of recidivism.
A supervisory body has issued a decision on prison overcrowding
Some specific needs of women are taken into account.
About 300,000 tampons and menstrual pads would be made available at no cost to female prisoners in Belgium’s 10 women’s prisons. The minister responsible for the fight against poverty said that “access to these supplies is not a luxury nor a vanity but simply a fundamental need.” The project was one of the 2021 government’s new material aid measures. The goal of the project was to reduce poverty for female prisoners, in all its forms.
The prison service offers activities to prisoners
Activities are organised by outside associations, dependent on each establishment. The options are limited.
Penalised inmates are often deprived of taking part in activities.
A ukulele manufacturing workshop opened its doors at the Marche-en-Famenne prison. The instruments would be given to children in Gaza, Palestine. The nonprofit Music Fund ran the workshop. Ukuleles would arrive in a kit and require an average of about 30 hours of work per instrument.
Number of deaths attributed to suicide
In 2017, thirteen people committed suicide in prison. Three of them were in pre-trial detention, seven were sentenced, and three were psychiatric inmates.
The population most affected by suicide is men aged 25 to 40. The causes are often attributed to upheavals in detention circumstances: pending trial, placement in solitary confinement or transfer from one establishment to another. Suicides have also occurred among people with higher education, individuals in a relationship, and those who are parents.
According to the Council of Europe’s annual report, the number of suicides in Belgian prisons was three times higher than that of other European countries. The Council of Europe put forward the hypothesis of prison overcrowding as one potential major cause of this high rate.
There is a high number of drug addicts. A study reveals that 33% of the prisoners questioned say that they use drugs on a regular basis.
Another study reveals that 68% of prisoners are considered to be highly dependent on legal or illegal psychotropics. Antidepressants are used for lack of a genuine course of care. 43% of the prescriptions issued are for antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
Two researchers from the ‘Neederland Studicentrum Criminaliteit’ found in April 2019 that 37% of people in prison in Flanders suffer from serious psychological disorders. Of these cases, 21% are the result of drug use, 10% of alcohol use and 4% of the effects of drug addiction. The use of psychotropic drugs such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants and antipsychotics is three times higher than in the general population. The risk of suicide is also greater. This trend is more prevalent among men than women.
Several actors and projects seek to intervene and ensure a preventative approach within the institutions. According to research, 50% of prisoners have access to prevention programs.
Actions regarding risk reduction are limited. Only a few pilot projects exist (including those related to suicide).
On average, at least one prisoner out of every three in the Belgian correctional system would use drugs. Those incarcerated at Gand prison had the option of participating in a 40-week supervision program twice a year. The program, partially funded by prisoners’ jobs, aimed to combat drug use in prisons. Federal Minister for Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne hoped to launch this program in other Belgian prisons.
Some prison facilities, units or cells implement high-security measures
Belgium has a high security facility located at the Bruges prison, with a 10-person capacity.
This facility is for prisoners deemed particularly violent by officers, or who present a very high escape risk. Central authority is responsible for assignment. The high-security area operates in complete autonomy. Everything is subject to authorisation, from having a pen or cutlery in a cell to participating in an activity with another prisoner. Prisoners there have a standardised diet that is extremely strict and supervised.
Two autonomous, 20-person sections have been installed in the prisons of Hasselt and Ittre, to accommodate the most “radicalised” prisoners. These sections are called D-RAD: EX. Only certain prisoners have access to an activity, subject to management approval. Working is drastically limited, as are visits and phone access.
In Ittre, this section has a tiny yard with wire fencing, and no associated “deradicalisation” program. In Hasselt, detainees have access to the regular yard and can be visited by a “disengagement” specialist.
The criminal court of Brussels has mandated the Belgian government to pay a symbolic amount of one euro per detention day to alleged jihadist prisoners who are placed in special isolation sections called “D-Radex», in Ittre and Hasselt prisons. The Belgian government believes that this measure falls within common law. Nevertheless, the court classifies it under a special individual security scheme ( régime de sécurité particulier individuel (RSPI). The RSPI scheme, as provided by the law, is associated with several legislative guarantees (Article 1382 of the Civil Code). Placement in the “D-Radex” section without the application of these guarantees, is an error on the part of the Belgian government. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Nicolas Cohen1, reiterates the importance of individual monitoring of prisoners and the guarantee of their right to appeal as provided by the law.
Board member of Prison Insider ↩
The criminal court of Brussels has mandated the Belgian government to pay a symbolic amount of one euro per detention day to alleged jihadist prisoners who are placed in special isolation sections called “D-Radex”, in Ittre and Hasselt prisons. The Belgian government believes that this measure falls within common law. Nevertheless, the court classifies it under a special individual security scheme ( régime de sécurité particulier individuel (RSPI). The RSPI scheme, as provided by the law, is associated with several legislative guarantees (Article 1382 of the Civil Code). Placement in the “D-Radex” section without the application of these guarantees, is an error on the part of the Belgian government. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Nicolas Cohen, reiterates the importance of individual monitoring of prisoners and the guarantee of their right to appeal as provided by the law.
Read the full article of May 14 2019. (in French).