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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?

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.