Interview Prisons Human Rights Belgium

Prison conditions in Belgium: an alarming situation

Interview with Özlem Özen, MP of the Socialist Party in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives

"Prison"(CC BY-NC 2.0) by Matthias Müller

Özlem Özen, MP of the Socialist Party in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives, answers to the questions of #ProgressiveEurope. She comments on prison conditions and on the lack of financial and human resources in the Belgian penal system. Besides, she calls for a better assistance of prisoners in the process of rehabilitation.

Would you give our readers a brief introduction to the Belgian carceral system? How many prisoners are there in Belgium and how has the prison population evolved over the past ten years?
There are around 10,600 prisoners in Belgium – a number which lies above our maximum prison capacity of roughly 9,200. We have a chronic overpopulation of prisons (16.4% in 2017). This number has slightly decreased since 2013, where we had almost reached 12,000 prisoners. The number of prisoners is once again on the rise in 2017 compared to 2016. In 2002 there were less than 9,000 prisoners. Belgium is renowned for its particularly high proportion of detainees awaiting sentence (around a third).

Are penitentiary establishments governed by public institutions or by private bodies?
There is currently one penitentiary institution run by the private sector, the Gand psychiatric centre. The other 34 establishments are directly controlled by public administrations.

How are prison conditions regulated on a national level?
Controlling the prisons is particularly problematic in Belgium. Belgium is one of the few western states not to have ratified the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) UN treaty, which determines the conditions under which prisons have to be surveilled by an independent body. Recently, the Belgium government even exacerbated the situation. Surveillance bodies were allocated tasks that they do not have the capacity to carry out, due to a lack of material, human and legal resources. This had such negative knock-on effects that even tasks that had already been taken on by these bodies were negatively affected by these reforms.

Last May the European Court of Human Rights condemned Belgium for having handled many detainees in a degrading manner. You have often denounced the over-population of penitentiary establishments as well as the deplorable incarceration conditions. What are the main difficulties in your country concerning the the treatment of prisoners? To what extent are European standards, such as the European Prison Rules, violated?
The dilapidation of certain prisons is without a doubt the most dramatic aspect of Belgian prisons. Sometimes you wonder if we have really moved on from the Middle Ages. The dilapidated state of the buildings and of the facilities creates difficult health and hygiene conditions for the detainees. Belgium has been condemned many times for its treatment of inmates, left practically to their own devices in psychiatric wards of prisons, without appropriate treatment. At the same time, we seem to be heading towards the gradual closure of the psychiatric wings.

Our current government’s cuts to staff in penitentiary institutions have significantly deteriorated working conditions in prisons. Pressure on staff has also increased and a record high of 9.2% absence was recorded in 2016, meaning those remaining have to focus on carrying out the bare minimum and thus restrict movement in the heart of the prison. The prisoners sometimes spend 23 hours a day in their cell. Their guardians drop their role of re-socialisation and some prisons had to get rid of social and educative activities organised by external groups.

Speaking more generally, Belgian prisons are stuck in the 19th century: lack of freedom remains synonymous with punishment. A law introduced in 2005 was meant to change this philosophy, but it wasn’t completely enforced yet and was even slimmed down by the current government. Nowadays the thought of reintegration only surfaces at the moment of a possible conditional release. However, we realise that the complexity of application procedures increases the number of prisoners that serve their full sentence, and who are liberated without any preparation. Finally, Belgium suffers from a severe lack of statistics. The national institute of crime and criminology does not have the appropriate means and the lack of digitisation (and uniformity of the information when it is digitised) means any long term study is very complicated, or even impossible.

To what extent are European standards, such as the European Prison Rules, violated?
Recently the Council of Europe highlighted the extreme gravity of the situation in Belgian prisons and also pointed out the lack of minimum staffing levels. The implementation of such a measure is a legitimate question. However, it should not mask the fact that today, even if there are no strikes, fundamental rights are not being respected since conditions in prisons do not correspond, in most institutions, to the minimal requirements needed to live decently.

For example, Belgium has recently been sentenced by the European Court of Human Rights to pay compensation money to inmates, as detention conditions were deemed as degrading and inhumane treatment. In this case, the court estimated that the gravity of the situation corresponded to article 3 of the Convention (inhuman or degrading treatment) for two inmates, due to a combination of factors (a cell of 3 square metres, a lack of activity outside of the cell, the access to showers limited to two times a week and to the outdoor covered area to one hour a day).

On the other hand, Belgian prisons are attempting to develop some good practices. The Minister for Justice recently proposed the introduction of extended prison leave. What initiatives could be shared and implemented at a European level? What is Belgium’s stance concerning alternative methods of punishment?
Extended prison leave, recently adopted by the Minister for Justice (one week in prison alternated with one week outside), has the advantage to recognise the overpopulation of prisons. And yet, it actually is an inadequate solution: first of all because it does not involve the inmates of the institutions that are most affected by overpopulation, which are the short-stay prisons. On top of this, these periods of leave are not accompanied by any form of rehabilitation, they even go so far as to hinder the prisoner from reintegrating. How could someone apply for a job or a traineeship every other week? Such activities are essential for the prisoner, especially when he pleads for release on parole.

Some useful developments on a European level could be the diversification of the prison sector, with the introduction of transition or rehabilitation houses (taken from the Finnish model). To conceive a 21st century prison with a more limited detention infrastructure would certainly be a project for the future. One could also establish a training institute for prison staff.

Alternative forms of punishment are being increasingly introduced in Belgium, but the question of supporting reintegration should not fall by the wayside and should also be as much prioritised as these alternative forms of punishment.

How can we encourage the improvement of prison conditions in Europe? Should the European institutions introduce new regulative measures? How can we encourage a mutual exchange between European countries on this problem?
First of all, we have to be thankful for the very existence of the European Court of Human Rights. Governments cannot ignore the judicial and moral rulings of this supranational court. The fact that it is being challenged by some states is a threat that should not be underestimated. Regarding regulative measures, the principle of making the necessary preparations for reintegration should happen from day one of the prison sentence and should be enforced on a European level.

To encourage the exchange of good practices between European Member States, it could be useful to develop statistics in order to provide evidence of which systems work best, in particular statistics concerning repeat offence rates. I would also suggest the organisation of meetings taking place at least twice a year to discuss prison-related issues, surch as health care provisions and internment for example.

Özlem Özen is a member of the Socialist Party in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. She is also a member of the Judicial Commission.