Belgium’s prisons are so overcrowded they have made it into the top 5 ranking of Europe’s most densely populated jails, narrowly beating Turkey.
As a result of release schemes adopted in certain nations to control the spread of Covid-19 among detainees, the pandemic contributed to the reduction of overall prison populations in Europe between January 2020 and 2021, according to the Council of Europe (COE) ‘s Annual Penal Statistics on Prison Populations for 2021.
Moreover, the Belgium government has made a decision to suspend sentencing and decided to go as far as pushing for early provisional release for prisoners who were less than six months from the end of their sentences to keep the prison population under control in April 2020. An adapted system was later included in the law.
However, despite these measures, the age-old issue of overcrowded prisons in Belgium has not been alleviated, and overcrowding remains an issue.
According to the COE’s report, Belgium recorded a prison density of 108 inmates per 100 places. Only Romania (119) and Greece and Cyprus (both 111) ranked higher.
For the past several years, the population in Belgian jails have exceeded 10,000, despite there was only being room for about 9,300 inmates in the nation’s 35 penitentiary institutions. This resulted in inmates being forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor in several detention centres and prisons.
In light of the chronic overcrowding in prisons, Belgium in the 1970s introduced measures that resulted in sentences under three years automatically being converted to electronic surveillance and sentences of under six months not being executed at all.
However, rather than reducing overcrowding in prisons, it worsened Belgium’s high prison density and its very high recidivism rate, according to Federal Minister for Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne, who stated first-time offenders “often imagine themselves to be untouchable.”