belgium prison chaos mclaughlin pkg_00002808.jpg
Belgium's understaffed prisons spawn chaos
02:39 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: At least 10 people have been freed because of poor conditions, judge says

With guards on strike, some prisoners are being guarded by 10 people instead of 100

Critics warn that the strike makes it even easier to radicalize prisoners

Brussels, Belgium CNN  — 

Still reeling from terrorist attacks, Belgium’s prison system has now become “apocalyptic.”

So says Alain Onkelinx, vice president of the Wallonian parliament in Belgium’s French-speaking region.

Prison guards in that region have been on strike for weeks, protesting what they say has been financial belt-tightening, the government’s failure to replace retiring guards, and inflexible working hours that limit their ability to do social work with prisoners.

Onkelinx recently toured a prison with a colleague where 1,000 prisoners are being watched over by just 10 guards, rather than the usual 100.

“The waste’s terrible. The odor. The smell. Terrible. Our visit – shocking,” he told CNN’s Erin McLaughlin. “The situation is apocalyptic.”

Prison guards stormed the Justice Ministry last week. One later admitted it was not the profession's finest moment.

The situation has become so bad that at least 10 suspects have been released from Brussels prisons where guards are on strike, Judge Luc Hennart, president of the Brussels Court of First Instance, told CNN.

Hennart said that conditions in the prisons have long been “inhumane,” but have been severely exacerbated by the strike, which has been going on since April 26.

Some prisoners in Vorst prison are three to a cell, go 48 hours without leaving it, and must use a bucket as a toilet. As a result of the strike, he said, many have also been unable to meet with their attorneys.

The state of the prisons “clearly has had an influence on the decision” to release the suspects, he said.

He emphasized that the decisions were made on each individual case, and were not blanket rulings that would apply to other people.

A wide range of cases was involved, he said. CNN affiliate VTM reported on one case of a drug trafficker being released.

Guards trash ministry

Just two days earlier, last Tuesday, the Belgian capital was host to a scene seemingly out of place in a European capital – let alone the unofficial European Union capital.

Striking prison guards, protesting what they deemed an unreasonable offer from the government, stormed the Justice Ministry, trashing the office in the process.

“Our culture of dialogue is being severely damaged,” Justice Minister Koen Geens told CNN affiliate VTM afterwards. “Dialogue is always more important than violence.”

Geens has laid out a master plan to replace failing prisons and bring on more personnel.

“International and national observers have reprimanded Belgium for years for an inhuman detention policy,” he said in a statement. “And together with the government, I want to turn that page.”

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‘Prisons are going to explode’

The violence was not the prison guards’ proudest moment, conceded Marc Peeters, a guard at the Andenne prison.

Forty minutes south of Brussels, he stood with a dozen colleagues outside the prison where for several weeks he has been on strike.

The road leading to the high-security prison is now partially blocked off by shipping pallets strewn in the street by striking guards. An oil barrel with smoldering wood stood smoking off to the side.

“It’s impossible to work with so few staff,” Peeters said. “What is going to happen is that prisoners are going to be locked in their cells more, so they’re going to be more and more nervous.”

“If this happens, prisons are going to explode.”

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Radicalized in prison

The problem is not, of course, just one of keeping order in the prisons.

“When you go to jail, normally you have to go out a little bit better than you were,” said Christie Morreale, Onkelinx’s colleague in the Wallonian parliament who toured the prison with him. “Now if you leave them (prisoners) in this condition they will be worse.”

Anarchy within the prisons, she said, also risks exacerbating the problem of radicalization within their walls.

The inside story of Paris, Brussels attacks

The ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was radicalized while in a Belgian prison, according to CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruikshank.

Judge Hennart, in an earlier interview with CNN, made clear what was at stake.

Speaking generally about the over-taxed court system and a government under withering criticism in the wake of March’s terrorist attacks, Hennart said: “When there is mistrust in the system, we create more terrorists.”

“A citizen which does not trust the state will find alternatives, like terrorism. It’s urgent to wake the judiciary up so that it functions well.”