Budget cuts, staff shortages, excessive workload in view of prison overcrowding. Prison officers are at their wit’s end and strikes are on the increase, resulting in more complicated living conditions for prisoners. Rudy Van De Voorde, director of prisons for six years, wants to be reassuring. “Recruitment will take placehe assures.
How to explain the chronic understaffing of prison officers?
“It all started with the three-month strike that took place in 2016 following budget cuts, when the organic personnel framework was downgraded. An agreement was finally reached with the then Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, and we were then able to start recruiting staff again. But then there was a shortage of candidates to become prison officers. Since then, we have not been able to fill all staff cadres. Since last year, the The situation is improving. In Wallonia, the executives are almost complete. Work still needs to be done for Flanders and Brussels.”
Why is there such a lack of attraction for the profession?
“The phenomenon is felt in a series of sectors, both private and public. The number of shortage professions continues to increase, whether in health care, the police, or the prison environment. The mobility of young people is clearly more important than in the past. They will change jobs more quickly. The work culture is being redefined. We no longer take a job ‘for all the life.'”
The majority of prisons affected by a strike movement
Isn’t there a problem of promoting the profession of prison officer?
“Compared to other public service professions, it’s not badly paid. We still have problem areas like Antwerp or Mechelen. Brussels is still a complicated core as well. It’s not the most attractive place to go to work, in particular because of the current mobility policy. We can clearly see that candidates are less and less willing to come and work in the capital.”
Many observers believe that Haren prison was inaugurated much too quickly and there are not enough staff. Do you make the same observation?
“It is true that the time between the official inauguration of the prison and the commissioning was short. Not everything could be tested under ideal conditions but there was also a certain pressure to be able to use this additional capacity as quickly as possible. In itself, therefore, there was no real shortage of staff. However, there was a large part of the inexperienced staff who had yet to learn the profession. And the officers who came from Forest prison still had to familiarize themselves with their new working environment, which was very different from the old one. We note, however, that the transfer of some 300 detainees took place without major incident.”
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Are recruitments planned?
“There are 121 vacancies at Haren Prison. Detention Attendants work within the Living Units or Detention Village Section and guide a group of detainees. They are the first point of contact in their daily lives and discuss with them how the detention can best be conducted.”
The overpopulation rate in Belgium is one of the highest in Europe. How to remedy the situation?
“The question is whether there are too many inmates or too little capacity. Either we look for ways to have fewer inmates, or we unlock ways to have more space to be able to properly accommodate inmates. The policies decided to increase prison capacity and the Prison Master Plan aims to increase from a capacity of 9,800 to 12,000 places between 2025 and 2030, which would help to address the problem of overcrowding (there are currently 11,402 detainees in Belgium and this figure is set to increase in the future, Editor’s note).”
What will be put in place to achieve this objective?
“According to estimates, to be refined according to the planning of our partners, Ypres prison will reopen, after renovation, at the beginning of 2024 with 167 places. Antwerp high security prison will open in 2025 and provides 444 places. The prison of Vresse-sur-Semois will open at the beginning of 2028 with 312 places just like that of Bourg-Léopold, with the same capacity. Finally, Verviers prison will open in 2030 with 240 places.”
The recidivism rate for former prisoners is among the highest in Europe. Is the whole thing in prison the solution?
“The comparison with other countries is perilous because not all countries have the same counting methodology. In Norway, recidivism is calculated between 20 and 30% while the European average is 70%. We are in the this range. In any case, the result is not positive, but the comparison with other countries is truncated. Decreasing is one thing, but a whole process of reintegration is underway and should help to reduce the rate of recidivism.”
Are the detention houses that are being created at the instigation of Minister Van Quickenborne a credible response to the problem of overcrowding?
“Detention houses are moving in the right direction. They aim to house detainees sentenced for short sentences who are no longer found in prisons or on electronic bracelets. The detainees are accompanied by prison officers in civilian clothes with an emphasis on reintegration through work. Access to the outside is facilitated and this should allow a prisoner to have the opportunity to find a job that will therefore prevent recidivism.”