Number and percentage of female prisoners
Variation in the number of female prisoners
increased by 3.9%
439 women were incarcerated in January 2017
There are several different places for female inmates:
- one all-women’s prison (Berkendael, in Brussels)
- eight women’s sections in men’s prisons
The most recent women’s section to open, in 2016, was in Hoogstraten prison.
According to observers, women’s sections are globally better managed than men’s sections. They follow a more open detention regime where, for example, inmates eat meals together.
There is an effective separation between men and women
Some prisons, such as Marche-en-Famenne, organise mixed-sex activities, including unsupervised visits between inmates.
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.
Women are sometimes “forgotten” by the prison system, often enjoying less access to work, leisure and other activities. They are also denied certain custody arrangements that are available to men, such as day parole (spending nights in prison and days on the outside).
Conjugal visits are allowed for women
Pregnant women are housed in specific units or cells
Pregnant women are regularly locked up. The fact that they are pregnant is rarely taken into consideration. Pregnant women often have to share a cell with an inmate who smokes.
Pregnant women receive proper prenatal care
During their pregnancy, inmates are treated by a medical and social worker from the Office for Birth and Childhood. They are also monitored by a physiotherapist, a gynecologist and a midwife.
Childbirth takes place in
- in an external medical facility
- within the prison
In cases of emergency, women are generally sent to the hospital.
The use of instruments of restraint is forbidden during labour and childbirth
Since 2005, women are no longer handcuffed while giving birth. They spend three to five days in hospital, and are not allowed to have any family with them during labour. The father is informed of the birth by telephone or by letter.
Mothers are allowed to keep their children with them
yes: until the age of 3 years
As of January 2017, ten children were staying with their mothers in prison. Children born to female inmates may stay with their mothers until the age of three. In reality, most of them are less than a year old when separated. At the age of three, the child goes to live with a family member, a foster family or to a care home.
The maintenance of family ties depends on the types of contact authorised by the prison, and on the possibility for children to visit their incarcerated mothers. Volunteers from the Red Cross roaming service accompany children on prison visits and family visits are organised by the non-profit Relais Enfants-Parents (Parents-Children Relay) in Brussels and Wallonia.
Berkendael, Lantin and Bruges prisons have specially designed cells for mothers and their infants. When hese cells are not available, the mother and child are placed in a normal cell that is temporarily equipped for them, sometimes sharing it with another mother and child. This happens frequently at Berkendael prison, where there are only two nurseries, equipped for two children. As of 2017, it housed five infants. Lantin has four bedrooms/nurseries, which are rarely all occupied.
Registering children born in detention is complex, requiring administrative procedures that are almost impossible to carry out without the help of a social worker. Social rights such as child benefits are not clearly established for women who give birth in prison. Information is difficult to access, and the division of responsibilities between the federal government and federated entities is a source of confusion.
The law bans the imprisonment of minors
Minimum age of juvenile incarceration
A child can be placed in a public youth protection institute (institution publique pour la protection de la jeunesse, IPPJ) from the age of 12, and in a closed regime from the age of 14.
In Flanders, under certain conditions, at-risk minors can be placed in a closed regime.
Ministry in charge of juvenile offenders
- Administration générale de l’aide à la jeunesse (AGAJ), in Wallonia
- Agence Jongerenwelzijn, in Flanders
Incarcerated minors can be divided into several categories:
- minors who are tried as adults (mineurs dessaisis in French)
- minors who fall under child protection
- unaccompanied foreign minors
Unaccompanied foreign minors who are suspected of having committed a crime undergo a bone test to determine their age. The reliability and interpretation of these tests have been disputed.
Mineurs dessaisis are minors aged 16 or over who, according to the juvenile judge, should be tried as adults. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child believes that this measure is a breach of these minors’ rights.
Minors can be held in an open or closed regime, but the courts must opt for an open regime where possible.
There are six IPPJs in Wallonia and four in Flanders (where they are known as gemeenschapinstellingen, or GI). There are also support services to assist minors after they have been released.
The IPPJs organise 11 types of detention, divided into 19 educational projects. The different regimes in closed sections are as follows: observation and evaluation; observation and guidance; observation and emotional and interpersonal development; individualisation; education in a closed regime. Measures of reform are currently underway, with the aim of harmonizing the different educational projects and ensuring continuity.
The GIs offer five educational and therapeutic modules (in open or closed regimes): time out, observation, support, treatment and a personalised residential course.
Establishments for non-incarcerated children are known as public youth protection institutes (institution publique pour la protection de la jeunesse, IPPJ).
Since June 2010, mineurs dessaisis have been held in special sections of the closed centers at Saint-Hubert (13 places) and Tongres (16 places).
Psychiatric establishments have beds for minors in intensive treatment units (116 in 2015).
Figures on juvenile prisoners are published
Statistics concerning minors sentenced by the juvenile court are published sporadically by the AGAJ1. The latest figures, published in 2013, list 1207 boys and 247 girls
- 264 male mineurs dessaisis in closed centers;
- 199 boys in closed IPPJs;
- 744 boys in open regimes;
Thirteen of the 247 girls listed are held in closed regimes.
There are no available statistics concerning minors in the criminal justice system in Flanders. ↩
Juvenile prisoners are separated from adults
Minors and adults have been held separately since 2011.
Places of detention for minors are monitored by the Délégué général aux droits de l’enfant (General Delegate for the Rights of the Child, DGDE) and the Kinderrechtencommisaris (KRC), ombudsmen for children’s rights. A “Commisie Van Toezicht” (Monitoring Commission) headed by the KRC was established in Flanders in January 2017, and began work in September. It has jurisdiction over the GIs and over the closed prison of Tongres. A similar monitoring commission was set to begin work in Wallonia in January 2019.
Belgian prisons house inmates from 130 countries. 9.7% of inmates are Moroccan, 5.3% are Algerian, 3.3% are Romanian, 3.1% are Dutch, 2.1% are French, 1.8% are Albanian, 1.4% are Italian, 1.2% are Turkish, 1.1% are Tunisian, and 2.2% are from the countries of former Yugoslavia.
The prison regulations are translated for foreign prisoners
Foreign prisoners can be assisted by an interpreter
in some cases
Foreign inmates have access to an interpreter for interactions with the police and judges, but rarely within the prison. Numerous shortcomings are reported during meetings with the psychosocial service.
Foreign prisoners are entitled to legal aid
Illegal residence is punishable by three months’ imprisonment, going up to six months in the case of repeat offences. However, the Court of Cassation forbids prison sentences based solely on illegal residence.
Foreign prisoners are allowed to remain in the country after having served their sentence
The Belgian authorities can revoke the residence permit of a foreigner serving a prison sentence in Belgium, and refuse them the right of stay (sometimes referred to as banishment or double penalty).
In February 2017, a law was passed as part of the fight against terrorism, authorising the revocation of foreigners’ residence permits for reasons of public order or national security. In practice, this means that long-term residents, including those born in Belgium, can lose their residence permits for minor and/or very old offences.
As authorised under the 2017 law, the Immigration Office obtains a list of all inmates with legal resident status, and reevaluates each inmate’s situation. Such action may lead to the revocation of their right of residence, and there are fears that this will occur on a large scale.
There are specific prison facilities for long-term prisoners
The construction of a prison in Alost for those serving long sentences was announced in February 2017. This project is part of Masterplan III (see “Prison Facilities”).
Life sentences are banned
This sentence is not applicable to minors who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offence.
People serving a life sentence
Parole can only be granted after at least 15 years of the sentence have been served. For repeat offences, this minimum can be increased to 23 years. Requests for parole by life-sentence inmates are examined by the Court for the Enforcement of Sentences.
Minorities or indigenous people
Minority or indigenous backgrounds are criteria for specific cell or unit assignment
The specific needs of prisoners are taken into account with regard to
- dietary requirements
The prosecution or imprisonment of a person on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity is banned
Assignment of transgender prisoners to a specific facility depends on
their biological sex
Conjugal visits are allowed for LGBTI prisoners
Elderly prisoners (≥60 years)
The Saint-Hubert prison has a dedicated wing for 30 prisoners aged over 60 who are nearing the end of their sentence. The premises are adapted: everything is on one level and wheelchair accessible. Specific activities are offered to them. The Merksplas prison in Antwerp also has a pavilion for elderly inmates. The construction of three new pavilions is planned for late 2022, early 2023. Approximately one hundred people will be able to be accommodated there.
There are no areas solely reserved for elderly prisoners in other facilities, such as Saint-Gilles, Forest and Berkendael. Spaces are not designed to facilitate access to beds, showers or the exercise yard, or the passage of wheelchairs. Food is not adapted for people with no teeth. Prison directors must take measures on a case-by-case basis, depending on the individual needs of elderly inmates. The medical staff, who are generally overloaded, cannot respond adequately to these needs. Measures are taken when the prisoner’s condition deteriorates. Rapid and comprehensive treatment is rare.
Elderly prisoners may be granted early release for health reasons. Parole is subject to criteria that are difficult to fulfill for inmates who have served a long sentence, requiring that they find a job, accommodation and means of subsistence. In practice, some prisoners can never be released from prison.
Death penalty is abolished
yes, since 1996