Inmates ‘treated like wild animals’ as Belgian prison guards strike

Filip de Smet / Belga / AFP | Soldiers arrive at the Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels on May 9, 2015.

A strike by prison guards in parts of Belgium has led to inmates being “treated like wild animals” as conditions inside jails rapidly deteriorate, a group of intellectuals have warned in an appeal for the authorities to take urgent action.


The strike in the French-speaking region of Wallonia and the mainly francophone capital Brussels began on April 25, with guards walking out over staffing levels.

On Friday, as the strike entered its 19th day, an article written by Belgian philosopher Daniel Salvatore Schiffer appeared in the country’s “Le Soir” newspaper under the title “Human beings treated like wild animals”, denouncing the increasingly squalid and inhumane conditions in which the prisoners are being forced to live.

“Men and women are locked up day and night, sometimes three to a cell, with no possibility of being allowed out, even if only to take a shower, go to the toilet or go for a short walk in the prison yard,” Schiffer wrote.

The “negligence” of the authorities was “not far, in this awful case, from resembling a crime against humanity”, he said.

The appeal was signed by a dozen prominent francophone public figures, including former French government ministers Jack Lang and Luc Ferry and the psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco.

Soldiers sent in

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Schiffer said that it was up to the federal authorities “to put an end to a situation that violates the most basic human rights of hundreds of detainees” by “initiating dialogue with prison officials who are demanding better working conditions”.

Belgium has long been criticised for overcrowding and poor conditions in its prisons and the problem is worse in French-speaking Wallonia than in the richer Flanders region in the north.

A Council of Europe report released in March found Belgium had the second-most overcrowded prisons in Europe after Hungary, with 129 inmates for every 100 places available.

Some prisons, such as the one at Forest on the outskirts of Brussels, built in 1910, have fallen into dilapidation.

In response to the growing crisis, Prime Minister Charles Michel on Monday ordered the country’s army to step in, with 120 soldiers sent to some of the worst-hit prisons in effort to restore order.

That decision has proved controversial, with the president of the Association of Francophone Prisons, Marc Dizier, comparing the use of soldiers to guard prisoners to “the blackest days of eastern Europe or like present-day Russia or North Korea”.

New prisons promised

On Friday, they same day as Schiffer’s appeal was published, the country’s cabinet announced the creation of 1,432 new prison places to fight against overcrowding, while Justice Minister Koen Geens said new prisons would be built in Bourg-Léopold, Vresse-sur-Semois and Verviers.

The same day, Geens met with union bosses in an effort to break the deadlock, though no announcement has yet been made on the results of those talks.

The government’s hand may end up being forced by the courts, however. On Thursday, a court in Hainaut ordered the state to guarantee a minimum level of service to prisoners following a lawsuit filed by 33 inmates at Tournai and Leuze-en-Hainaut prisons.

Prisoners must be given the right to at least three family visits per week, a daily walk of at least one hour and three meals a day, one of which must be hot, the court ruled.

Failure to do so would see the state fined €1,000 a day for each of the 33 prisoners.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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