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Haren's new mega-prison: too far from Brussels' courts and understaffed

09:43 11/06/2024

Haren prison – a project that was controversial from the outset – is continuing to cause problems, prison bosses and lawyers have said.

The main issue is that this mega 18-hectare village with a capacity of 1,190 places inaugurated in 2022 is just too far, about 10km, from the centre of Brussels, which is causing delays to trials.

The prison, which was supposed to replace those in Forest and Saint-Gilles, is also a long way from the Justice Palace where all the major court decisions are made and all the lawyers are based.

“The judges, interpreters or lawyers have to wait for the detainees for an hour, two hours, three hours. Cases are systematically put back a week or two or more, with very serious consequences,” Brussels-based lawyer Antoine Leroy said.

Notably if accused people, for example for a rape case, cannot be heard, they could be freed for lack of evidence: “How can we protect the rights of the victim or the defence in these circumstances?” he said.

Samuel Vincent, CSC trade union vice president for French-speaking Brussels prisons, said these difficulties were foreseen from the start.

“Saint-Gilles and Forest prisons are around five-10 minutes [away from the courts]. In Haren, we have a 40-minute journey at normal times.

"And with cases starting at 9.00 in the town centre, can you imagine what time we need to get the detainees ready? These are impossible hours to cross town, even with all the sirens screaming."

Vincent said one solution would be to open a house of arrest in Brussels for criminals waiting for a judgement. This would facilitate their access to the Justice Palace. Another would be to hear the cases in Haren prison itself.

A third would be to encourage the judges and lawyers to use the brand new buildings outside the Haren site, he said, added: “It would be easier to make a judge move than a detainee.” Also, at present, these rooms are just standing empty.

But the magistrates and solicitors have clearly indicated that all their paperwork is in the Justice Palace. They do not want to lose a lot of time moving to these hearing rooms, said vice-president of the magistrates’ union, Claudine Croupienne.

A fourth option would be to hold court hearings online, as it was done during the pandemic, or at least to read the dossiers online, Vincent said.

Experts also noted the chronic lack of staff and policing that hampers operations. This and the lack of detention centres for short-term prisoners has meant that Saint-Gilles prison has remained open, even though it should have closed. Some 500 people are still locked up there.

In April, a wing of Saint-Gilles prison was transferred to Haren with 28 officers, but now Saint-Gilles has to reopen, these officers need to go back.

This will exacerbate the current situation, Croupienne said: “I repeat, Haren is not opened at full capacity because it does not have enough staff [employing 400 people when 700 are needed]. And open units also lack sufficient personnel.”

Staff that do work at the prison often do not turn up. "Between 100 and 150 agents are sick every day, while any officers hired with ‘Rosetta’ status (meaning a first job with a fixed, renewable, one-year term, normally for young people under 26), are coming to the end of their contracts."

Ultimately, the future does not look bright for this brand new prison, Vincent said: “The problems look set to carry on for a long time, or even remain unsolvable unless we just shut down the prison and reconstruct it in the centre of town.”

Claudine Croupienne agrees: “There is really neither a solution, nor budget, nor any real motivation to find the answers to all this. This is the feeling that we have.”

Photo: Hatim Kaghat/Belga

Written by Liz Newmark