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Belgium's prison break problem

A convicted felon escapes from jail by helicopter. What is Belgium to do about all its escaping prisoners?

The Belgium prison of Saint Gilles, in central Brussels, April 26, 2002. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

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.