The overcrowding in Belgian prisons is becoming increasingly worrying, writes the Central Supervisory Council for the Prisons (CTRG) in its annual report for 2021. The overcrowding threatens “compliance with fundamental rights”, says Marc Nève, chairman of the Supervisory Council. As in 2020, the corona pandemic also left its mark on life in Belgian prisons in 2021.
“With a few exceptions (in particular Antwerp, Mechelen, Oudenaarde, Dendermonde, Ypres, Dinant, Marche-en-Famenne, Namur), every institution closes 2021 with an occupancy rate that is higher, and in many cases even much higher than at the beginning of the year,” the CTRG reports.
The Supervisory Board reiterates for the third year in a row its recommendation to the Minister of Justice to “stop the increase in the prison population and to ensure humane and dignified detention conditions for persons deprived of their liberty, without increasing the existing prison capacity” , it sounds in the annual report.
Trash and rats
The CTRG advises the minister to encourage a more extensive application of alternative punishments. With a view to the dignity and fundamental rights of detainees, the CTRG recommends to the minister to improve material living conditions in the penitentiary institutions. Repairs must be carried out and structural investments must be made in the infrastructure.
Several Supervisory Committees, charged with the independent supervision of a penitentiary, the treatment of the detainees and the respect for their rights, reported in their annual reports outdated, unhealthy and dilapidated infrastructure of cells, communal indoor spaces and sanitary facilities. . The outdoor areas also have the necessary problems, such as the presence of waste and rats and the absence of shelter and greenery. The infrastructural problems “do not only relate to the well-being of the detainees, but even more so to their human dignity”, concludes the Supervisory Board.
Like the previous year, 2021 was determined by the coronavirus. In addition to corona measures such as the mouth mask obligation, restrictions on activities and quarantines, the so-called Corona Act came into effect in 2020. As a result, 205 detainees were released early in 2021. Another 263 inmates were able to spend some time outside the prison.
In 2021, as many visits as possible were still organized via video conference. How and when those video conferences took place varied from prison to prison. However, visits without physical contact have gradually resumed since the end of 2020. The penitentiary administration punished physical contact during visits (excluding physical contact with children) with motivated searches and preventive quarantines of fourteen days. The CTRG saw the latter measure in particular as “a hidden disciplinary sanction” rather than a health measure in the interest of the detainee. In June 2021, the ban on physical contact was lifted.
“Inactivity, the fear of contamination, the threat of body search, quarantine or transfer to another cell after physical contact with the partner or children, isolation, lack of hygiene, lack of space and many other factors remained unease, frustration in 2021 and cause psychological distress, despite the relaxation in the summer and part of the autumn,” concludes the Supervisory Board. The CTRG advises the Directorate-General for Penitentiary Institutions (DG EPI) to develop a health crisis management policy based on the evaluations and analyzes carried out after the COVID-19 crisis.
Right of complaint
The annual report also reports on the right to complain. From October 1, 2020, detainees can lodge a formal complaint against a decision made by the prison director. In 2021, 1,794 complaints were already registered. 72 percent of the 1,616 complaints from 2021 that were handled in the same year were declared inadmissible or unfounded.
Since its foundation in 2019, the CTRG has exercised independent supervision over Belgian prisons and the treatment of detainees.
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