Coronavirus: freeing Belgian prisoners ‘essential’ to cut risk, observatory warns

Coronavirus: freeing Belgian prisoners ‘essential’ to cut risk, observatory warns

As many prisoners as possible must be released from Belgian jails in order to contain coronavirus clusters behind bars, the International Prison Observatory (IPO) said on Monday.

"The sanitary situation in prison, as in the rest of society, is worrying," the Belgian section of the IPO said in a press release.

The observatory is urging the justice ministry to take "immediate steps" to ease prison overcrowding and allow for a more efficient managing of coronavirus risks inside prisons.

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In the statement, the IPO referred to a decision by the former justice minister, Koen Geens, to approve the early release of prisoners as the coronavirus pandemic gained ground in the country. The decision excluded inmates convicted for violent or serious crimes.

Geens' decision in April to grant early release brought the number of inmates throughout the country down to 9,870, a number which still exceeded the nationwide maximum capacity of 9,500.

The statement from the IPO on Monday echoes calls issued in late March by Belgium’s Central Council of Penitantiarty Surveillance (CCSP), who said the country's crowded and often insalubrious prisons would exacerbate coronavirus risks.

"At this point, it is essential that the ministry again takes steps to release as many detainees as possible to ensure healthier management of the crisis," the IPO said, 7sur7 reports.

The observatory's call comes as prison staff strikes to protest the reinstatement of unsupervised visits, which they say increase risks of seeing the coronavirus enter facilities.

Inmates were again allowed to receive visitors in late May following a suspension of over two months imposed at the height of the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.

The prison of Nivelles was put under lockdown on 8 October after eight prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus. Days later, on 10 October, the prison of Huy also went into shutdown after at least six prisoners tested positive.

The IPO said that failing to address the situation in prison constituted "important violations to the right to health, not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to family relations and the rights to protection of detained people."

As Belgium faced severe shortages of protective equipment, namely face masks, at the start of the pandemic, the country's penitentiary administration got inmates across the country to make tens of thousands of face masks, most of them set for use within prisons but also delivered to other government agencies.

“Prisoners are paid €0.62 apiece and there is a waiting list for those who want to work making face masks,” a prison administration spokesperson said at the time.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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