Prison overcrowding in Belgium "jeopardises respect for fundamental rights"

Overcrowding in Belgian prisons is becoming an increasing concern, the country's Central Commission of Supervision within Prisons (CTRG) writes in its 2021 annual report. The overcrowding problem jeopardises the "respect of fundamental rights", says the commission's president Marc Nève. Belgium has been struggling with prison overcrowding for decades and prison occupancy rates increased even further in 2021.

"With a few exceptions, every institution has ended 2021 with an occupancy rate higher, and in many cases much higher, than at the beginning of the year", reports the CTRG.

Since its creation in 2019, the Central Commission has been independently monitoring Belgian prisons and the treatment of detainees. 

For the third year in a row, the CTRG reiterated its recommendation to the Minister of Justice to "halt the increase in the prison population and to guarantee humane and dignified conditions of detention for persons deprived of their liberty, without expanding the existing prison capacity", the annual report states.

Several supervisory committees reported on outdated, unhealthy and dilapidated infrastructure of cells, indoor communal areas and sanitary facilities in their annual reports. As for the outdoor areas, the reports mentioned the presence of trash and rats and the absence of shelter and greenery.

The infrastructural problems "do not only affect the welfare of the detainees, but even more so their human dignity," the Central Commission concludes.

The way the detention system dealt with the Covid-19 health crisis is also subject to criticism:

"Inactivity, the fear of contamination, the threat of being searched, quarantined or transferred to another cell after physical contact with a partner or children, the isolation, the lack of hygiene, the lack of space and many other factors continued to cause discomfort, frustration and psychological distress in 2021, despite the easing of restrictions during the summer and part of the autumn," the CTRG states.

The annual report also discusses the right of complaint. Since October 2020, Belgian detainees can lodge a formal complaint against a decision taken by the prison governor. 72 percent of the 1,616 complaints registered in 2021 and handled in the same year were declared inadmissible or unfounded.



A cell in the prison of Saint-Gilles in Brussels, Belgium (2012) © BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM

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