Belgian prison system in crisis

21st August 2006, Comments 0 comments

The escape of 28 detainees has raised serious questions about the Belgian penitentiary system, but who is responsible and what is being done to resolve the crisis? Aaron Gray-Block reports.

Two inmates, 26-year-old Kosovo man Peraj Konto and the 22-year-old Zakaria Elaagbani, broke out of their cell at the Dendermonde jail early on Saturday 19 August.

Belgium's prisons are due for much-needed modernisation works

They forced open their cell door by breaking off a metal plate protecting the lock, allowing them to force the lock open.

Using a knife to threaten one guard, they forced two other guards to hand over their keys and locked the three wardens in a prison office.

Using the guards' keys, the two ringleaders helped 26 other prisoners out of their cells and via an inner courtyard, all 28 detainees clambered the prison wall to freedom.

An international arrest warrant has since been issued for the arrest of both ringleaders, said to be members of an East European crime gang. Both men were serving jail terms for a series of violent thefts.

Nine other detainees have been re-arrested, but the public prosecution has admitted it is unlikely all of them will be captured.

Guards out on strike

Prior to the weekend's jail break, tests were performed on installing fully metal doors at the Dendermonde jail, but prison director Roland Mentens said the doors were considered too expensive. Instead, new door locks were to be installed in September.

"If the new locks were already installed, this escape might not have occurred," Mentens said.

Not prepared to wait until September, however, Dendermonde wardens went out on strike on Monday, vowing to remain off the job until 2pm on Tuesday.

The guards are demanding a complete renovation of the jail, additional security measures and extra guards.

"The entire jail must be renovated wing by wing. The planned new locks are not adequate, the new metal doors must be installed," a spokesman for the Christian public service union CCOD, Filip Dudal, said.
Unions are also demanding the recruiting of 15 extra guards.

"The overcrowding and the lack of guards have been a problem in the Dendermonde jail for some time," a joint union statement said.

"During the renovation, there must be a maximum of 120 detainees allowed to stay in this jail. Prisoners who have been sentenced to more than seven years must be transferred to other prisons."

Currently, there are 160 prisoners being held at Dendermonde and local police officers have taken over guard duties while prison wardens are out on strike.

Political blame

Christian Democrat CD&V MP and former justice minister Tony Van Parys was quick to point an accusing finger at the coalition government in response to the spectacular jail break.

He blamed the escape on obsolete facilities at the Dendermonde prison and repeated refusals by the government to open new jails.

Van Parys' criticism, however, was only the start of finger pointing as the Liberal VLD accused its coalition government partner the Socialist PS of blocking planned investment into the penitentiary system.

"If the PS had not consciously blocked my plan in 2001 for the construction of a new jail in Dendermonde, that jail would now be ready and there would have been no such escape," former VLD justice minister Marc Verwilghen said.
The current Economic Affairs Minister said a multiple-year plan for the penitentiary system had been decided upon during the previous term of government. That plan included the construction of a new jail at Dendermonde.

But he said the Finance Ministry inspector, a PS party member, hindered the implementation of the plan and accused the PS further of blocking the entire dossier in the Cabinet.  
Consequently, Verwilghen said Saturday's escape was the fault of the Francophone Socialists.

Besides the remarkable criticism of the VLD's coalition partner, Verwilghen also attacked Van Parys, who called on Monday for a crisis plan to be drawn up over the nation's prison system.

In response, Verwilghen accused Van Pary

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