Belgian prison chaos prompts fears of national malaise

Media captionJudges and lawyers have joined protests against the state of Belgian jails

Belgium’s prison system has been condemned as “disastrous” by senior lawyers, almost four weeks into a strike by warders. And the dispute, involving penitentiaries in Brussels and French-speaking regions, shows no sign of being resolved.

Some of Belgium’s top judges and lawyers gathered outside Brussels’ Palais de Justice on Friday to protest against what they say is the government’s long-term failure to fund a creaking justice system.

Belgium’s prisons have long been infamous for poor conditions and overcrowding.

“Security is terrible, conditions are mediaeval,” says one former inmate at Forest prison, one of Belgium’s most notorious institutions not far from the centre of Brussels.

A Belgian convert to Islam named Abourayan, he spent several weeks in the jail in 2014 and 2015, while on trial on charges relating to terrorism.

“Prisoners can get hold of anything they want there: iPhones, drugs, anything,” he told the BBC.

The building was antiquated and completely unsuitable for housing hundreds of high-risk prisoners, he complained.

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Riot police have had to protect the justice minister’s office from protesting prison warders

The prison’s director, Vincent Spronck, agrees.

“Two wings of the prison have never been renovated; the cells have no running water,” he told the BBC. “Drainage problems mean the place is infested with rats, cockroaches and mice.”

The prison is overcrowded: currently 360 inmates live in a space designed for 280. Conditions are tough in normal times, but more than three weeks into the strike, things are desperate for the inmates, says Mr Spronck.

“They can only exercise for half an hour every three days. Medication isn’t being distributed effectively and there are no family visits.”

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Forest jail director Vincent Spronck says that after almost four weeks conditions are becoming desperate

In a report released in March, inspectors from the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee indicated shortcomings at every level of Belgium’s prison system.

They said prisons in Belgium were more overcrowded than any others in Europe – bar Hungary – with 129 detainees to every 100 spaces.

A lack of capacity in the justice system means many people linger in prison awaiting trial far longer than in other countries.

Two weeks ago two Forest inmates attempted suicide.

At Ittre, another prison affected by the strike, a man was killed last week by a fellow prisoner, using plastic cutlery.

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Tempers flared this week as prison guards protested in Brussels

The situation is out of control, according to Alexis Deswaef, president of the Belgian Human Rights League.

“It’s a complete violation of article three of the European Convention of Human Rights,” he told the BBC, referring to prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

“To fight re-offending and make sure the detainee takes back his place in society, there must be some social work done in prisons.”

A lack of funding is at the heart of the strike. Guards are protesting against cuts to staff numbers and working conditions. The government has been trying to reduce spending in a country with a bloated bureaucracy.

As conditions in Belgium’s jails deteriorated, Justice Minister Koen Geens took the unprecedented measure of drafting in the army to help run them.

The sorry state of Belgian prisons has had direct implications for national security.

Jihadists in jail

Several of those belonging to the network that attacked Paris and Brussels spent time in the system.

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Brussels bombers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui were both well known to Belgium’s criminal justice system

Thirty-five percent of prisoners are Muslim, compared with 6% of the general population. And, says former inmate Abourayan, radicalisation is rife.

“Kids go in there as petty thieves. They come out wanting to go to Syria and having the contacts to do so,” he told me.

Abourayan said inmates would shout from one cell to another, telling each other how to buy weapons once they were out and who could help them if they wanted to become jihadists.

“I tried to block my ears,” he said, fearful of what he might be drawn into.

Alexis Deswaef says unless things change, radicalisation will continue. “There is no money for social, psychological or religious guidance,” he says. “It is easy for people to take the wrong path in prison, because there’s no alternative.”

The Belgian government says it has taken several measures to deal with the radicalisation. In April it opened specialist wings in two prisons, where the most radical extremists are to be isolated. It says these wings will prevent “contamination.”

But critics, including imams who visit prisons, disagree. “Who is to judge who is radical and who is moderate,” asked one imam. “The risk is that the measure could increase radicalisation of moderates.”

The government says it will return staffing to close to 2014 levels and points to plans for building several new prisons already in the pipeline.

Failed state?

Following the 13 November attacks in Paris, and then on Brussels two months ago, Belgium’s government is dealing with multiple crises.

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Soldiers were sent into some of Belgium’s biggest prisons as the strike took hold

The capital is living through a security crisis, with military visible on the streets to reassure anxious citizens.

There’s an infrastructure crisis; traffic has snarled to a halt as many of Brussels’ road tunnels are closed and in disrepair. And now the strike by prison guards has drawn attention to a justice system in crisis.

Not long ago Belgians would proudly defend their country against accusations of being a “failed state”.

But now they are joining in. Several prominent Belgians this week carried a call for the “relaunch” of the country, plastered across the front page of Le Soir newspaper.

Prime Minister Charles Michel responded: “Belgium is neither a failed state nor a rogue state,” he said. But he did agree that Belgium had a negative image, especially abroad.

He announced that €4m (£3m; $4.5m) would be spent on improving the country’s image.

“We don’t want him to work improving the image, we want him to work on the real problems,” says Alexis Deswaef of Belgium’s human rights league.

If, as Dostoyevsky once wrote, the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, critics might suggest that money could be better spent on its troubled prison system.

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