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Belgian inmates stuck in cells over staff strike

11 May 2016 15:00



Inmates in Belgium’s prisons have been stuck in their cells 24 hours a day with a prison staff strike now in its third week.

The unprecedented strike has forced Belgium to call in the army to help, with the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel facing growing criticism at home and abroad for failing to resolve the crisis.

The crisis has also put the spotlight back on Belgium’s ability to govern itself in the face of deep communal and linguistic divisions, after criticism of the country’s actions before and after the March 22 Brussels attacks.

Violence has broken out in many of the 17 prisons affected by the strike in the French-speaking region of Wallonia and mainly francophone Brussels.

“The situation has become unbearable, there is a lot of tension inside,” Vincent Spronck, the governor of Forest prison, located near Brussels, told reporters on Tuesday.

The prison guards in Brussels and Wallonia have been protesting against pension age rises and understaffing which has resulted in more overtime work.

Violence has erupted in a number of the prisons as prisoners became frustrated with their situations.

“The situation is nearly insurrectional” in some of the prisons and “detention conditions have become completely inhuman,” said Alexis Deswaef, the president of Belgium’s Human Rights League.

A military vehicle arrives at the prison of Sint-Gillis in Brussels, during a general strike of prison officers on May 9, 2016. ©AFP

Deswaef also said that fighting broke out in some prisons, with inmates smashing furniture for being deprived of exercise and family visits.

The government deployed 180 soldiers to prisons to help the police and the Red Cross who have been working in prisons since the staff went on strike. The soldiers were sent to three of the largest prisons, Lantin, Saint-Gilles and Forest.

The decision to deploy forces was regarded as controversial.

Marc Dizier, the president of the Association of Francophone Prisons, said the move “sets a dangerous precedent, to use the army to sort out a social issue.”

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