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Major rat infestation at Saint-Gilles prison

23:17 10/08/2023

Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels is struggling with "one of the biggest rat infestations ever", which some suspect has to do with the closure of Forest prison and some of the wings of Saint-Gilles.

Rats have always been in the prisons, often due to inmates throwing their rubbish and food scraps out of the window, Bruzz reports, but now the infestation is getting considerably out of hand.

As a result of the closures, there are more animals in a smaller area than before.

“They have also become less shy,” said Stijn Van den Abeele, regional president of the VSOA-Prisons trade union in Brussels. “They are less likely to be chased away and now also reach the cells more easily.”

Footage obtained by Sudpresse and Het Nieuwsblad showed rats roaming around the prison yard and in the cells.

Some inmates testified anonymously in the French-language newspaper La Capitale: “They reproduce at lightning speed and some of them are gigantic. It’s hell on earth here. We can no longer live in such conditions. It’s inhuman and degrading.”

Some extermination attempts had reportedly already been made by a specialised company to control the infestation, but without success.

“The prison will never try to eradicate them all, because they are also useful,” Van den Abeele said.

“After all, they remove a lot of dirt from the pipes, stuff flushed down the toilets by inmates. All the pipes would get clogged up should there be no more rats.”

Staff shortages also play a role in the increase in the number of rodents, according to Van den Abeele, and many prison workers are on holiday which makes the shortage even more pressing.

“The priorities then are not with exterminating pests,” Van den Abeele said.

The prison service confirmed the issue, with spokeswoman Valérie Callebaut saying: “We’re taking the problem very seriously. We’ve set up a hygiene plan. An external extermination company is deployed and there is also an internal team that regularly cleans up the rubbish heap.”

The problem of rodents is hardly new. In 2019, an inmate gave evidence to Bruzz and explained that “rats walk all over you at night”.

“Saint-Gilles is a dilapidated prison,” said Ruben Bruynooghe, a member of the Saint-Gilles prison supervisory committee.

“The problem is deep-rooted and concerns the dirt in the courtyards and between the cells and the outside wall.”

Currently, there are still 532 inmates at Saint-Gilles prison, meaning overpopulation is not the issue, Callebaut said.

“Eventually, the intention is to move all inmates in Saint-Gilles to the new prison in Haren, but this will be done very gradually, in the long term,” the spokeswoman added.

Inmates from Saint-Gilles denounced the fact that those who have committed more serious crimes were transferred to the new prison first, while those who have committed petty ones are left “languishing among the sickening dirty rats”.

The permanently sentenced prisoners are indeed the first to be transferred to Haren, and while concrete guidelines were supposed to have been provided regarding the transfer of detainees to Haren, they have not always been consistently applied.

VSOA unionist Eddy De Smedt said it was the government's responsibility to take measures and improve detention conditions while inmates await transfer to the newer prison.

“The staff in prisons are not recruited to serve as cleaners,” De Smedt said.

According to Saint-Gilles mayor Jean Spinette (PS), the various competent bodies are in regular contact with each other to improve detention conditions pending the full transfer, but he was nevertheless "surprised by the fact that certain measures they’d agreed upon had not yet been implemented".

He added: “A solution was foreseen but not yet put into practice. There is a cooperation between the different competent authorities to tackle the problem and improve detention, but everything has to do with budgets."

Written by Helen Lyons