The main purpose of the visit was to review the prevailing situation in the Belgian prison system, in particular the conditions of detention in establishments for prisoners awaiting trial and issues connected to strikes by prison staff and other industrial action resulting in a reduced work rate within prisons.
During its first visit to Forest Prison, the CPT observed that certain cells in the establishment were not provided with running water or sanitary facilities, while prisoners in other cells had to sleep on mattresses placed directly on the floor. The CPT made a series of recommendations to remedy these problems. Apart from the difficult material conditions to which most of the prisoners were exposed, the Committee regretted the almost total lack of activities at their disposal, the long waiting time to obtain a “table visit”, and the low staff/inmate ratio.
The purpose of the follow-up visit to Andenne Prison was to assess the situation in the establishment at the time of the spontaneous strike by prison staff which had just ended. The delegation observed in particular the shortage of staff and the numerous restrictions imposed on prisoners during the strike. The report reviews the various measures taken by the Belgian authorities to deal with the prison staff strikes, which did not produce any conclusive results. According to the CPT, systematic recourse to the police or civil defence teams during such strikes cannot be considered a long-term solution to major problems caused by industrial action. The Committee therefore reiterated the recommendation which it made to the Belgian authorities in 2005 that a “guaranteed service” be introduced within prisons. This should be implemented without delay.
In its report, the CPT also analyses the issue of prison overcrowding, which has steadily worsened in Belgium over the past years. None of the measures taken to date, with the exception of early releases, have brought about a structural, lasting decrease in overcrowding. The Committee stresses that “Prison overcrowding implies not only despicable conditions of detention, combining lack of privacy and violence, but it also deprives prisoners of certain fundamental rights”. Further, prison overcrowding involves considerable human and budgetary costs. Finally, prison overcrowding is one of the reasons frequently invoked by prison staff when they go on strike. The Committee therefore recommends that a national conference be organised, involving all interested parties, the objective of which would be to draw up the general framework of a new criminal justice and prisons policy.
In their response, the Belgian authorities provide information on measures already taken, or envisaged, to implement the CPT’s recommendations. As regards the conditions of detention at Forest Prison, the authorities indicate that the prison population has recently decreased. However, they acknowledge their inability to put into practice certain improvements recommended by the Committee, in particular the partitioning of toilets or putting an end to the use of buckets in cells. They also give responses concerning the shortage of staff in the establishments visited. Regarding solutions to prison overcrowding, the Government states it is in favour of consultation with interested parties.The visit report and the response have been made public at the request of the Belgian authorities and are available in French on the Committee’s website: http://www.cpt.coe.int.