The French-speaking League for Human Rights has called on the Belgian government to make drastic cuts in the prison population, arguing that the current situation threatens to turn the country’s prisons into a powder keg.
The cause, not surprisingly, is the current health crisis, which leads not only to prisoners in overcrowded prisons living too close to one another, but also to an absence of adequate numbers of prison staff to maintain order.
In addition, visits have been cancelled, activities stopped and prisoners confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
The service is facing the possibility of a “humanitarian crisis,” according to Marc Nève, president of the Central Council for Prison Supervision.
“The outright ban on family visits flagrantly violates the law of principles concerning the prison administration as well as the legal status of prisoners,” added the League.
The human rights organisation is now calling for measures that go further than those taken at the start of the Covid crisis: anticipated release in some cases, and interrupted sentences in others. The judiciary could also contribute by turning to sentences other than custodial ones.
According to the League, while the fourth wave of the pandemic affects everyone, the special situation of prisoners is being ignored.
“While the figures for contamination behind bars remain inaccessible (hoping that they will be counted by the authorities), several prisons have been forced to confine again, such as Saint-Gilles, Ittre, Merksplas or even Leuven Centraal,” the organisation says on its website.
“The current situation is accentuated by chronic prison overcrowding that associations, external services, certain professionals, but also national, European and international human rights protection bodies have denounced for many years. If at the time of the first wave of the epidemic, humane solutions had been mentioned, a major policy was never implemented. Yet urgent action is needed and the only viable option is outright liberation. Only in this way can the risks of contagion be reduced and prisons properly managed without further infringements of the rights of the people who live or work there,” the statement goes on.
“The political will, combined with the mobilisation of all the actors in the justice system, could make it possible to release or keep at liberty hundreds of people without this presenting any danger in terms of security,” the League concludes.