Belgium ordered to tackle worsening situation in prisons

Belgium ordered to tackle worsening situation in prisons
Prisons in Belgium have historically been overcrowded. Credit: Belga

Belgium has been ordered by the Council of Europe (CoE) to take further steps to tackle prison overcrowding and poor conditions of detention, following previous warnings about the same issue.

The country has struggled with a chronic overcrowded of prisons for years, resulting in Belgium's prisons being among Europe’s most densely populated, and detainees having to sleep on the floor as a result of the lack of space.

Various court cases were filed against Belgium regarding various inhumane treatments of prisoners, from the lack of access to toilets and running water to repeated breaches of hygiene rules.

The CoE's Committee of Ministers expressed its "deep concern at the worsening situation in Belgian prisons" despite various measures implemented which were announced long ago to improve the issue, such as early provisional release.

Belgium has been urged to take further steps to fight against prison overcrowding — the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) already called on the country to establish an effective preventive remedy seven years ago — and to improve overall conditions in detention centres without further delay.

Vicious cycle proving hard to exit

The situation is mainly the result of Belgium's large number of detainees. The Committee already asked authorities to work towards sustainably reducing the overall number of detainees and grounds for imprisonment and repeated this call by ordering Belgium to create a comprehensive plan to combat overcrowding.

It suggested this could be done by encouraging alternatives to detention where possible — the Flemish government recognised the importance of this, but stressed it was costly — and considering binding measures to regulate the prison population.

This plan would be based on an "integrated and systematic approach to all its factors and measures that make it possible to monitor, in real-time, the evolution of the prison population."

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Belgium created a plan to implement reduced sentences for a number of lesser crimes, however, this was recently postponed due to continued overcrowding in existing prisons.

The CoE also ordered Belgium to create a Penitentiary Council as required by EU law since 2019, which will help to evaluate relevant policies and develop a comprehensive plan to combat prison overcrowding.

The situation will be reviewed during a CoE meeting in September 2023, but the authorities have been urged to regularly inform ministers about progress in the meantime, in particular regarding the setting up of an effective preventive remedy.

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