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Are Belgium's deteriorating prisons fueling radicalization?

As a strike by Belgian prison workers enters its second month, conditions for inmates are becoming increasingly dire. Critics worry these conditions are contributing to increased radicalization. Martin Kuebler reports.

Angry over inadequate pay, insufficient staff and poor working conditions, Belgian prison workers in Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia walked off the job over four weeks ago.

With wardens off the job, the government has been forced to call in the army to provide extra security for the prisons. But a lack of prison staff has led to deteriorating conditions in the jails, many of which are already at, or above capacity.

Last Friday, Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe (CoE), wrote on Facebook that he was "extremely concerned" about the rapidly deteriorating living conditions in a number of Belgian prisons during the strike with some inmates missing meals, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and using buckets instead of toilets in their cells.

"In the most serious cases, detainees have not been allowed to leave their cells for weeks, have not had access to lawyers or family visits and have been unable to access medication and use health services. The sanitary conditions in many cells raise serious concerns, too, due to a lack of regular access to basic facilities, like showers and bathrooms," he wrote.

These shortcomings are nothing new: a CoE report released in March by the Council of Europe's committee for the prevention of torture (CPT) outlined "major problems" in Belgium's prisons, highlighting the poor sanitary shortcomings, ill-treatment of inmates and overcrowding and pointing out that "many prisoners […] had only 3 square meters of living space per person, or even less."

Bursting at the seams

In 2015, the last year when data was available, the total capacity of Belgium's 34 prisons was said to be 10,028 inmates, according to statistics reported in "La Libre Belgique" newspaper. Actual detainees, however, numbered 11,040, with prisons in Brussels and Wallonia, in particular, bursting at the seams. Overpopulation rates at prisons in the Brussels districts of Vorst/Forest and Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis, both more than a century old, were at 37.4 and 28 percent, respectively.

Illustration picture shows the prison of Vorst / Forest during a union protest blocking the entrace to the prison of Vorst / Forest, Brussels (c) picture-alliance/dpa/T. Roge

The Vorst/Forest in Brussels, built in 1910, is Belgium's most overcrowded prison

In response to the CPT report, the Belgian government has admitted that the "present situation [in the prisons] is not ideal." However, it pointed out that the situation had begun to improve, with the rate of overpopulation in the country's prisons decreasing from 22 percent to 10 percent in recent years.

Nevertheless, conditions in the prisons remain dire, according to Alexis Deswaef, lawyer and head of the Belgian Human Rights League. He is taking the Belgian government to court on charges of "criminal negligence and inhumane treatment" over the poor living conditions. The Belgian state has previously been convicted in similar cases and ordered to pay compensation to inmates.

"In what state do we want prisoners to be in when they're jailed?" asked Deswaef at a recent protest. "Do we want to release people who are stressed, without direction, disempowered, like so many potential time bombs?"

Increasing threat of radicalization

It's these ticking time bombs that have authorities concerned, especially in light of the attacks in Paris and Brussels and reports that prisons are increasingly dealing with the threat of radicalization among inmates.

Several of the men linked to the Brussels and Paris attacks spent time in Belgian prisons in the years before the attacks, including alleged Paris ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam, the lone surviving suspect.

Harold Sax, the spokesman for the Belgian branch of the International Observatory of Prisons, said prisons could potentially contribute to radicalization, though he pointed out that this hasn't yet been proven in Belgium's prisons.

"However, the current prison conditions are appalling, and they can only stir up in prisoners a feeling of revolt against society," he told DW.

A December 2015 report by the non-profit association Penal Reform International (PRI) noted that "poor conditions in prisons, including overcrowding and lack of access to adequate health care […] can create a context in which radicalization can flourish."

"You're putting large numbers of people [together], often people who are at risk of falling under the influence of strong preachers or characters with strong ideological motivations," said Nikhil Roy, PRI's program development director. "Prison is a place where the strong prey on the weak. It's quite a good, fertile breeding ground for this to happen."

Demonstrators enter by force the office of Justice Minister Geens during a protest of prison guards, on Tuesday 17 May 2016, in Brussels (c) picture-alliance/dpa/T. Roge

Angry demonstrators forced their way into the Justice Ministry during a protest of prison guards last week

Roy told DW that part of the problem is prisons across Europe are facing extreme austerity cuts, making it increasingly difficult for staff to do their jobs.

"Prison staffs are working in extremely difficult conditions […] in terms of their pay, their working conditions, their job prospects. You're not going to going to get better conditions for prisoners without improving conditions for those who work with them.

"It's like in a school: You're not going to get good students if you have bad teacher. It's a very simple equation," he said.

Government aims to tackle extremism

At the end of 2015, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens announced plans to increase the number of full-time Islamic counselors working in the Belgian prison system to 27, up from 18. According to reports in the Belgian press, around 35 percent of prisoners are Muslim, higher in the prisons in Brussels.

Plans for mega-prison in Haren © Cafasso

Overcrowded prisons in Brussels are set to be replaced by a controversial mega-prison

The Muslim Executive of Belgium recently posted a job ad seeking Islamic prison counselors, looking for candidates with "sufficient religious knowledge" and a "resistance to stress."

They would join other prison chaplains and Islamic counselors, including those working in special anti-radicalization units at several prisons.

These measures are part of the government's wider 39-million-euro ($43.6 million) anti-radicalization plan, announced earlier this year, of which 6.9 million euros will go toward prison prevention programs.

An increased investment, but clearly not enough for striking prison workers. On Wednesday, Justice Minister Koen Geens made the government's latest offer to the unions, which are set to vote on the proposal on Monday. But by Thursday afternoon, staff at two prisons - including those at the crowded Saint-Gilles penitentiary - had already rejected the deal.

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