Belgium's prison break problem

BRUSSELS – Ashraf Sekkaki’s prison break was worthy of Fox's "Prison Break."

A young couple books a helicopter for a sightseeing trip over the medieval city of Bruges. In the air, the man pulls a revolver and orders the pilot to touch down in a prison yard where Sekkaki, a notorious armed robber, and two other prisoners are whisked away to freedom.

Great TV material perhaps, but embarrassingly for the Belgian prison authorities, this show was both reality and a re-run.

Two years ago, French convict Erik Ferdinand was plucked from a prison yard in Liege by a hijacked helicopter. A few months later Nordin Bennallal, nicknamed “the eel” for his previous escapes, was only prevented from making a similar exit from a prison near Brussels when several of his fellow inmates tried to hitch a ride. They overloaded the hijacked chopper and forced a crash landing. Undeterred, Bennallal and his armed accomplices seized a couple of guards and walked out the front gate to a waiting getaway car. After those breakouts, the authorities ordered anti-helicopter wire netting fitted over prison yards. However as Sekkaki headed for the coast on July 23, Justice Ministry spokesman Leo De Bock was forced to admit: “The nets have been ordered but we are still waiting for the public building board to install them.”

The high profile escape of a man branded one of the kingdom’s most dangerous criminals has, as one would expect, made Belgians ask why this keeps happening.

In the past 20 years the number of inmates has doubled to a record 10,500. That’s 1,500 more than the country’s prisons are supposed to hold. So far this year, 45 prisoners have escaped, breaking the record of 40 in 2006. Demoralized prison staff frequently strike to protest the overcrowded conditions. Prisoners make the same point with regular riots.

In June, the government announced up to 300 prisoners would be released early because the hot summer could make life in overcrowded cells untenable. A judge in Antwerp recently said he was setting a thief free because there was no space available to lock up the repeat offender.

Belgian officials say the overcrowding is the result of tougher sentencing, but figures showing that almost a third of prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention also points to the notoriously slow pace of judicial procedures.

However, there could be a solution close at hand.

The Netherlands has the opposite problem to its Belgian neighbors.

A combination of lower crime rates and years of replacing custodial sentences with community service work has left prison cells empty.

The government has announced that eight prisons may have to close because of a lack of convicts. The country’s penal system has space for 14,000 prisoners, but just 12,000 spaces are filled. With trade unions protesting at a possible loss of hundreds of jobs, the government in The Hague opened negotiations with its counterpart in Brussels to invite Belgian prisoners to serve their time north of the border.

On July 1, the Dutch Deputy Justice Minister Nebahat Albayrak announced she had struck a deal that would allow the Belgians to outsource the imprisonment of 500 convicts to the prison in Tilburg, a city just over the frontier.

Albayrak told parliament in The Hague that the deal was “unique in the whole world.”

However she had failed to take into account the complexities of Belgium’s linguistic politics.

French-speaking Belgian politicians have balked at the 30 million euro annual price tag on the cross-border deal, since only prisons from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half will benefit. They point out that the Netherlands would charge a daily cost of 164 euro per prisoner, compared to 102 euro for keeping them in Belgian prisons.

Some politicians in the Netherlands are also uneasy about the prospect of renting out the country’s cells. Opposition parties would like to see Dutch authorities returning to a policy of locking up criminals rather than placing them in so-called “electronic detention,” which allows offenders wearing ankle tags to return home at night after doing community work like gardening or cleaning hospital floors.

One outspoken critic is Liberal lawmaker Fred Teeven who complained that the system allows convicted criminals to “sit at home having a beer in front of the TV.”

Albayrak insisted the empty jail cells are more the result of falling crime rates rather than lax sentencing. She also stood by the non-custodial sentencing system, which was widened in 2001 to replace prison terms of less than six months. Albayrak said that it is cheaper and more effective than keeping criminals behind bars and that it produces much lower re-offending rates.

In Belgium, it's certain that too many criminals are sitting at home watching TV. Earlier this month nine more prisoners escaped on two occasions — three of them even fled Brussels' main, fortress-like courthouse after armed accomplices broke into the building.