Report: Belgium must tackle prison staff strikes and “chronic” over-crowding

In a report published today, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) calls on Belgium to solve its chronic problem of prison overcrowding.

The CPT also wants the national authorities to take measures to ensure that strikes of prison staff do not have a negative impact on inmates.

During its visit to Belgium in 2013, the CPT visited the prisons of Antwerp, Forest, Merksplas and Tournai, where it found that overcrowding was still a major problem despite the ‘masterplan’ for renovating and constructing new prisons.

In the establishments visited, many prisoners held in multiple-occupancy cells had only 3 m² of living space per person, or even less, with some having to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Prisoners at Forest and Tournai Prisons did not have toilets in their cells and had to use a bucket at night.

The report reveals that most of the prisoners spent 21 hours a day in their cell because there were too few activities on offer.

The CPT recommends that the Belgian authorities provide at least 4 m² of living space for each prisoner, improve detention conditions, and increase the number of activities and work opportunities available to prisoners.

The report also calls upon the authorities to initiate an independent inquiry into the substantial number of allegations of provocations, insults and even physical ill-treatment received by the CPT at Forest Prison, carried out in particular by a group of custodial officers in Block D. Staff-prisoner relations appeared to be appropriate in the other three prisons.

The situation of inmates held in the psychiatric annexes of Belgian prisons has once again given the CPT cause for concern because of the detention conditions and the lack of adequate treatment.

The CPT points out that these facilities are not suited, in principle, to prolonged care for psychiatric patients and calls upon the Belgian authorities to fully revise their policy on the detention of inmates accommodated in this kind of annex.

In the eight police establishments visited, in general, the detained persons did not allege physical ill-treatment during their deprivation of liberty and the conditions of detention were satisfactory. There were many allegations, however, notably by minors, of excessive force being used by police officers, particularly upon apprehension.

With regard to the circumstances surrounding the death of Jonathan Jacob at Mortsel Police Station in January 2010, the CPT deplores the fact that the inmate was not looked after in a health-care establishment and notes shortcomings in the intervention method chosen by the special police units.

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