“Let’s create space in our prisons – release prisoners nearing the end of their sentences”

  • A law on quotas, first suggested in 2003, should be given serious consideration, according to the CGSP trade union.
  • It would provide for prisoners nearing the end of their sentence to be released to free up space.

And so it’s done: on Tuesday, the first detainees moved into Marche-en-Famenne prison. Over the next few months, 300 men and 12 women will take up their places in the new penal establishment, which formally opened on 13 October.

This is a prison with human dimensions, as envisaged in the 2008-2012-2016 strategic plan for prisons, which anticipated, in particular, increasing the number of prison places from 8,422 in 2008 to 10,274 by July 2014. But will there be a sufficient number of new prisons, and will they provide enough places to meet the needs of the swelling prison population? With Marche-en-Famenne only just open, some are already saying that the answer is no.

Michel Jacobs, Federal Secretary of the CGSP-AMiO public service union, is one of the dissenting voices. He says that any suggestion that prison overcrowding can be overcome without fundamental reform of the penal system is illusory. “Since Dutroux, it’s been a disaster. There are no more royal pardons and the Tribunal de l’ Application des Peines probation court intervenes later and later. As a result, more and more people are remaining in prison right up to the end of their sentences.” As for electronic tagging, and the extension of its use to those sentenced to less than six months, the unions are agreed that it is completely ineffective. Jacobs says: “Tags represent a massive interference with the liberties of those who have to wear them. For couples, it’s like a third partner in the relationship! As a result there is an excessively high risk that the rules are breached, and the prisons end up taking in people who were not originally intended to have a custodial sentence.” It’s counter-productive.

They say that over 1,000 new cells, with humane detention conditions, are “not enough”, and that tagging is “inappropriate.” Aren’t the unions simply criticizing all the measures put forward by the government as ineffective before they have even been put into effect? “What exactly do we want? Coherence!” explains Jacobs. “We want a round table discussion and to see the new strategic plan, which we have been calling for over several years, but which has still not been put forward.” While the round table would open up a new discussion on prison officers’ terms and conditions, Jacobs reveals that it could also provide the opportunity to discuss a proposal which the union may wish to put to the Minister, or to her successor in the next administration.

No comment from the justice minister

The union proposal relates to a “law on prison quotas” which would place a limit on the prison population. This idea was first put forward in 2003, and has already been the subject of draft legislation, but has so far failed to reach the statute book. Put simply, it would mean that if a judge, or the ministry, decided that an individual should receive a custodial sentence, but every prison was already full to capacity (i.e. the quota had been reached), then they would have to choose either to delay the start of the sentence until a place became available, or to allow another prisoner who was near or reaching the end of their sentence to be released a little earlier than would otherwise have been the case. In short, they would have to create a space.

It goes without saying that not every category of offender would be eligible to benefit from early release under this measure. And Jacobs admits that “the problem with the law is that it would bypass the Tribunal de l’Application des Peines, currently the only body able to take decisions of this sort.”

We invited the Justice Minister, Annemie Turtelboom, to give us her views, but she declined to comment.

LUDIVINE PONCIAU

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