Prison staff on 48-hour strike to protest inhumane conditions

Prison staff across Belgium started a 48-hour strike at 22.00 on Sunday to protest against the "inhumane" conditions in which people must live and work.

Prison overcrowding, staff shortages and a "stubborn" Justice minister who wants to enforce short sentences at all costs are among the unions' main grievances. A major riot at Turnhout prison on Friday night required the intervention of special police units to restore calm in a prison known for severe overcrowding problems.

"The ministry of Justice has been underfunded for decades," said Claudine Coupienne, a representative of the Christian trade union CSC. "The minister stubbornly insists on putting people sentenced to between zero and three years in prison, but there is no room! People are sleeping on the floor because we're putting three people in cells designed for one person."

Grégory Wallez of the CGSP, the union representing public sector workers, added: "The political vision of our minister of justice" in enforcing short sentences is "to put an end to impunity". However, he said, this measure would be accompanied by the opening of 15 new prisons to accommodate around 600 new inmates. Only three are currently operational: two in Flanders and one in Brussels.

Reassuring the electorate

Nevertheless, creating new places "has never been the right choice to combat overcrowding", he said. "In Belgium, the more buildings there are, the more prisoners there are."

The only short-term solution Coupienne sees to prison overcrowding is for Justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD, Flemish liberals) to reverse his recent decisions. With nine months before the elections, she is not convinced this will happen.

"The main problem is that it reassures the electorate to imprison people far from the cities as if they were no longer part of society. But in prison, the punishment is deprivation of freedom, not deprivation of rights, human contact or hygiene," she said, stressing that "if prisoners are treated badly in prison, they come out worse than when they went in".

Minimum service

Overcrowding in prisons affects prisoners first and foremost, but it also impacts the work of prison staff. The unions denounce the increase in workload and the unsafety that is taking hold in prisons.

In general terms, "working conditions are so bad that it's not without reason that it's no longer possible to recruit new staff. It's like a snake biting its own tail," said Coupienne.

Staff will be on strike for two days. There will be a minimum service, the conditions of which will vary according to the size and activity of each establishment. On Monday, there will be picket lines in Tournai, Namur and Lantin, among other places. 



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