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'Unsustainable overcrowding': 48-hour strike in all Belgian prisons

09:28 26/09/2023

Prison staff in Belgium are taking part in a 48-hour countrywide strike in protest against "unsustainable overcrowding".

The strike began at 22.00 on Sunday, according to trade unions VSOA, ACOD and ACV.

“Belgium's prisons are bursting at the seams, and overcrowding creates unsafe situations for both staff and inmates,” said VSOA’s Eddy De Smedt.

“We want to send a signal to politicians with our strike, because this is not a tenable state of affairs.”

The overcrowding is estimated at 115 to 120% per prison, or a shortfall of 1,500 places. Staff shortages in prisons and difficulty recruiting compound the problem.

Overcrowding is also causing more cases of violence, the unions said.

“We have to add detainees in already very small cells, and we cannot allow all daily activities to continue,” De Smedt explained.

“Prisoners get very frustrated, often resulting in aggressive behaviour. In Saint-Gilles prison, there were three cases of violence in three days.”

There are fears that the crowding situation will only worsen in the coming months now that Belgium's justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne has announced plans to ensure that all short sentences are fully served.

“This has increased the influx,” said De Smedt. “At the same time, he abolished a measure that allowed people to get out more quickly.”

There were talks with the minister's office last Tuesday, but no short-term solutions emerged, according to the unions.

“Our minister's political vision [in enforcing short sentences ] is 'to put an end to impunity', but this promise went hand in hand with that of opening about 15 new prisons to accommodate around 600 new inmates,” said Grégory Wallez, federal secretary at the CGSP.

“At present, there are only three in operation: two in Flanders and one in Brussels.”

The newest prison, Haren, was intended to take in the expected influx and address overcrowding issues. But the unions say it has failed to live up to the fanfare that accompanied its opening a year ago.

“Haren is a disaster: inmates poisoned after a fire in a cell because the smoke extractors were placed too far away, badges mistakenly giving access to certain premises – thus threatening security procedures, shower trays mounted upside down," said Claudine Coupienne, permanent secretary of the CSC Services Public.

"But the problems are kept quiet because the government wants to present it as the jewel in the crown of Belgian prisons.

“Working conditions are so bad that it's not for nothing that it's no longer possible to recruit new staff. It's like a snake biting its own tail.”

Unions have been raising the overcrowding issue for some time, with strikes following in quick succession.

“As a union, we don't have other options to send the signal – we have to wake up politicians now so that we can prevent the unsafe conditions,” De Smedt said.

During the strike, minimum services will be offered, the conditions of which will vary according to the size and activities of each establishment.

Written by Helen Lyons