Prisons and inmates: the Belgian paradox

Figures collected by the International Center for Prison Studies in 2011, show that Lithuania has the highest number of prisoners in relative figures. Per 100,000 inhabitants, Lithuania has 329 inmates. At first sight, Belgium has a paradox: we are well below the European average with 108, but still Belgian gaols are overcrowded. This is due to a lack of infrastructure, but this problem is being tackled.
Filip Van Roe © Reporters

This is our 8th and final episode about Belgium and the EU.

Finland has the best behaving residents, at least judging by the statistics. Finland is bottom of the list with only 58 inmates per 100,000 citizens. Finnish prisons only have to accommodate 3,117 inmates. Sweden is second-from-bottom with 67, followed by Slovenia and Denmark (68) and Germany (80).

It's the Baltic countries that dominate the other half of the table. Lithuania has 329 inmates per 100,000 inhabitans, which is in relative figures almost 6 times as much as Finland. Latvia (304), Estonia (245) and Poland (219) make up the rest of the top-4. The U.K. boasts a number of 157 and has almost 100,000 prisoners. Belgium (108) has 11.880 inmates in total. 

While in neighbouring countries - except France - the number of prisoners is going down, their number is up in Belgium. Our country is situated in the middle of the peloton, but still the prisons are always overcrowded: at present, there are 130 inmates per 100 places on average. "A large part of them is being kept in custody before the trial kicks off", says Sonia Snacken of the Brussels University VUB. "They have no permanent address in Belgium, and are being kept behind bars to prevent them from fleeing before they have to appear in court."

Overcrowded prisons are one problem, a second one is the fact that people with mental problems that need special care, often end up in normal prisons, because of waiting times in the care sector.

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Belgium and international crime

Almost 4 in 10 inmates don't have the Belgian nationality, a number which is only exceeded in Luxemburg, Greece, Cyprus and Austria. In this category, most of the inmates in Belgian prisons are from outside the EU. "Our country is a real hub for international crime", says Snacken.

Longer prison sentences are also leading to overcrowded prison cells. In Belgium, almost 50 percent received a prison sentence of 5 years or longer. In comparison with the rest of Europe, this is a lot. In the Netherlands for example, the lion's share of prison sentences can be situated between 1 month and 3 years.

Snacken sees two possible explanations: "Somebody can be convicted in different cases, with the different sentences being put together. On the other hand, a suspended sentence can come into force if someone violates the probation rules."

Prisoners can only file for an early release after 3 years. This means that when they get 3 years, they have to serve the whole sentence. "Some judges even opt for sentences of 3 years and 1 day, to avoid that it becomes more complicated for convicts to get an early release."

However, on the other hand, short sentences are seldom carried out. Last year, Justice Minister Annemie Turtelboom announced that sentences as from 6 months will always be implemented, this week it was announced that this will be the case for sentences as from 4 months. This is to tackle the feeling of impunity that some convicts had after receiving short sentences that kept them out of gaol.

Things should get better

Belgium is building 3 new prisons to cope with the problem of overcrowding. 4 other prison buildings will be modernised and extended. This should create 1,500 extra places.

A new goal was opened in Marche-en-Famenne last October (photo below). A new prison building in Beveren (East Flanders) should be ready by March, but a shortage of prison guards puts this in danger.