Incarcerated students are also students: Challenges and solutions from a practical perspective

All people have the right to education. This human right is also enshrined in international human rights instruments for incarcerated people (see for example the Nelson Mandela Rules 104-108). International research shows that prison-based education reduces recidivism.[1] The main explanation for this observation is that prison education enhances the chance of employment after release.[2] Moreover, by strengthening the intellectual, cognitive, and life skills of incarcerated people, prison education can help lower some “natural” barriers to positive community reintegration.[3] As an education coordinator in two Belgian prisons, it is my job to provide incarcerated people with the same education opportunities as people outside prison.

Prison education in Belgium

A fundamental tenet of the Belgian prison system is the normalization principle. This principle entails that the living conditions in Belgian prisons should resemble those in society as closely as possible. Therefore, people’s right to education remains crucial, despite the deprivation of liberty. In practical terms, incarcerated people must be given the same opportunities as other people in society when it comes to their education needs. The Belgian legislator is convinced that bridging the gap between inside and outside, through the provision of a differentiated range of social assistance and services, of which education is an important aspect, will ensure a better reintegration into society, and reduce the risk of recidivism.

Challenges education within prison walls

Nevertheless, the practical organisation of prison-based education is complex. This is partly due to the complex political structure of Belgium. Whilst the federal government is responsible for the execution of sentences, education is a Flemish competence (both inside and outside prison). This means that the many important factors and preconditions for good education are to be provided by the federal prison administration (DG EPI): suitable infrastructure and classrooms, sufficient prison officers so that activities can be organized smoothly, no overcrowding that hampers the good management of the prison, the daily regime in which education can have a place, etc.

Another challenge for prison-based education is that the overall prison population is very diverse in terms of demographic background and (educational) needs. Especially in larger prisons. This diversity makes it very difficult to tailor the offer of group-based prison education to the specific learning needs of each individual. The inevitable consequence is that the offer of education programmes is rather static, and certain individuals will feel let out, despite the best intentions to provide a wide range of educational programmes. In other words, the size, design, and management of large prison institutions make it difficult to individualize the offer and meet everyone’s needs.

Even more importantly, incarcerated people do not have access to the internet. They can only use legally permitted means of communication (art. 65 of the Belgian Prison Act). As a result, incarcerated people are not only physically and socially, but also digitally secluded from society.[4] Digital poverty is one of the most poignant problems of the 21 century. Not only within the prison system but also in society at large. For most of us, a life without the internet is unimaginable. The internet is intertwined with our everyday lives. For the most basic things like making an appointment with the bank or buying a bus ticket, we need internet. In addition, many social services, such as remote learning, are only accessible online and thus, unfortunately, not available for persons incarcerated in Belgian prisons.

If we don’t teach incarcerated people how to use these digital tools – in the same way as people outside prison – they risk missing the boat again upon release.[5] Enabling digital access and strengthening digital skills should not be an issue in detention, but should be self-evident.

Corona crisis as a catalyst for digital developments

Last year, the corona crisis exposed the challenges related to the lack of digitization within the prison walls. The country went into lockdown and incarcerated people were secluded from society even more than usual. No visitors were allowed and almost all social workers were forced to work from home for a certain period. But this crisis has also enabled us to gain momentum. The justice department recognised the importance of digitization, and took action. It was acknowledged that the reintegration of incarcerated people in a rapidly evolving society will be more successful if these changes are anticipated. Two actions were taken. First, the justice department started using Webex (inside and outside prisons), which is a digital tool that enables incarcerated people to make video calls to their family. Second, a working group was established to investigate how to respond to today’s digital needs in the field of prison-based education.[6]

As a practitioner involved in prison-based education, I see improvements and the efforts made. But things are moving slowly… too slowly. The basic question remains whether the prison system will ever catch up, as long as it tries to fit new ideas and new developments from a rapidly developing society into an old prison concept. The prison concept wants to evolve … but continues to face challenges while trying.

Creating the right context for education

Everyone who has ever visited a prison in Belgium, will have seen that the buildings are literally not made for organizing high-quality education. Incarcerated students are supposed to get the same education opportunities as students outside prison, which nowadays involves many digital tools. This is difficult if not impossible in too little and small classrooms, outdated equipment and a strict daily regime. We literally hit the wall while trying.

Why not approach these issues from another perspective? What if we change the context instead? Let’s imagine that we could do our work in small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention houses.

First, let’s start from the individual. Good education requires an individualized approach for each person. This is easier in a small-scale context. I work in two Belgian prisons with a different scale, one for about 50 people and one for about 120 people, and notice this difference in my everyday work. In the smaller facility, I know more incarcerated persons by their name, character and their specific needs. This also works in the other direction: they reach out to me more easily, because they know me better.

Second, detention houses that differ from each other, can have their own policies in terms of access to digital tools and internet. In so doing, it does no longer make sense to deny all incarcerated people access to the internet because a few might abuse this access. Some detention houses will have a more liberal policy than others, but as a general rule, all detention houses should have access to the internet. We are living in the 21st century, also in detention.

The differentiation must not only be based on security levels or restrictions, but also consider the content. What do you think of a detention house that focuses specifically a high school diploma? Or on workplace learning and an internship in the community? By working in a differentiated or individualized way, people learn how to deal with freedom and responsibilities, step by step. Taking responsibility also means arranging appointments with community services (such as a school), scheduling meetings and making video calls. Of course, with the support that is necessary. In other words, by differentiating, we would enable self-development.

Third, we must use the services that the community has to offer. This is also done in the current prisons, but as explained above, this is challenging. In practice, we adapt incarcerated student’s learning questions to the limited prison-based educational programmes, instead of using the full range of programmes available in society. Bridging the gap with the regular education system would be easier in a detention house. In detention houses with a higher security level, we can focus on remote learning. Online access to the school’s learning platforms is enough to start a trajectory. But there are other options: the detention house might share a classroom with a school in the neighbourhood (shared spaces) or teaching activities can be organized for mixed groups with incarcerated and other students, which is not exceptional in Belgium (even in closed prisons).

If the old prison concept, designed for individual confinement, isolation and (religious) reflection, cannot simply be given a new purpose, isn’t it time then to evolve towards a detention concept genuinely fit for the 21st century?

[1] Kim, Ryang & Clark, David. (2013). The effect of prison-based college education programs on recidivism: Propensity Score Matching approach. Journal of Criminal Justice. 41. 196–204. 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2013.03.001.
[2] Cho, R. M., & Tyler, J. H. (2013). Does Prison-Based Adult Basic Education Improve Postrelease Outcomes for Male Prisoners in Florida? Crime & Delinquency, 59(7), 975–1005.
[3] Fabelo, T. (2002). The Impact of Prison Education on Community Reintegration of Inmates: The Texas Case. Journal of Correctional Education, 53(3), 106-110. Retrieved March 10, 2021.
[4] Beyens, K. Robberechts, J. & Vanhouche A.-S. (2020). De coronacrisis als momentum voor het gevangenis? Panopticon, 41(4), 365-372
[5] Director general of the Belgian prison system, Rudy Van De Voorde, 2021.
[6] De gevangenis wordt een digitale omgeving. 

Inconsistent detention policy

Belgium formed a new government in September 2020. Exciting times for organisations that want to influence policy. RESCALED Belgium succeeded in putting detention houses on the political agenda. Literally it is stated in the Coalition Agreement that small-scale detention projects for different target groups, such as those shortly before release, young people aged between 18-25, parents with child… will be continued. Good news, but another remarkable thing is that our government is also creating extra prison capacity by building new large prisons. Two compatible or rather conflicting objectives?

FOCUSING ON SMALL-SCALE DETENTION

In order to be able to situate the concept of small-scale detention within the new policy, we need to take a closer look at some political documents. On 30 September 2020 the Coalition Agreement of the new De Croo government was published. The section on the enforcement of sentences refers to the implementation of Master Plan III, which is an update of Master Plan I and Master Plan II of the previous governments. These Master Plans are the basis for the prison policy in Belgium. More specifically, these Master Plans, together with the Coalition Agreement, serve as a starting point for the policy document of our new Minister of Justice. On 4 November 2020, his policy document was published in which he outlined his strategy for the coming years.

Small-scale detention was included for the first time in Master Plan III: small-scale transition houses were to be realized in Belgium. These are detention houses intended for people serving the last part of their prison sentence. The first transition house opened in Mechelen in September 2019 (15 places). In January a second transition house (15 places) opened in Edingen/Enghien (see June blog post). It was clear from the start, however, that the government intended to expand this total capacity to 100 places. This was also mentioned in The Coalition Agreement and the policy document. So soon more transition houses will be set up.

Other forms of small-scale detention houses are included for the first time in the policy document of the minister of Justice. The minister sees them as solution to the ‘prison problem’ and prison overcrowding. But he also expressed a new way of looking at our prison system. He believes that detention houses are able to break the vicious circle, especially for young people, in a way that prisons cannot.

In this way the government is creating adjusted capacity with a differentiated level of security that allows incarcerated people to maintain social relationships in society and thus preventing or limiting the harmful effects of detention. In so doing, these small-scale forms of detention play an important role in the subsequent return of these people to society.

FOCUSING ON BUILDING MORE PRISONS

The first two pillars of Master Plan III explicitly contain action items such as renovations, extra prison cells and completely new prison facilities. The Coalition Agreement, and the policy note in particular, do emphasize this. In other words: the construction of new prisons is high on the agenda and is planned for the near future.

The construction of two “mega prisons” is planned in 2021-2022. The Dendermonde prison will house 444 people in detention and is built according to the well-known Ducpétiaux model (star-shaped prisons with radiating cell wings from a central observation point). The new Haren prison will accommodate up to 1190 people in detention and is also referred to as a “prison village”. This is promoted as a prison with more humane conditions. Without doubting the good intentions and the need for improved material conditions in Brussels prisons, working towards reintegration will be more difficult in these large prisons, as they cannot be integrated in the community in the same way as small-scale detention houses.

Prison village in Haren.

Prison village in Haren.

(Bron: https://www.gevangenisharenprison.be/nl/werf/)

New prisons are planned in Antwerp (440 places), Leopoldsburg (312 places), Liège (312 places), Verviers (240 places) and Vresse- sur-Semois (312 places). Some new prisons are being built to replace outdated facilities; other prisons are constructed as a “solution to reduce prison overcrowding”. In short, a lot of extra places.

TWIN-TRACK APPROACH OR SIGNS OF COLD FEET?

In the policy documents published by the Minister of Justice there are two things that draw attention. On the one hand the inconsistent approach focusing on small-scale forms of detention, while also building new “mega prisons”. On the other hand the fact that our government is committed to creating extra detention capacity, which is worrying. Why do these inconsistencies arise? A twin-track approach or signs of cold feet?

While the government is sending a clear message that it is aware of the negative impact of imprisonment, increasingly supporting small-scale detention projects, all too often the decision is made to construct “mega prisons”. It is argued that “this is necessary in order to alleviate prison overcrowding”. But we do not think it is as simple as that. Over the past years we have learnt that building new prisons will not reduce prison overcrowding, on the contrary it results in a lack of capacity. Moreover, we must remain vigilant with regard to net widening.

A second reason for building new prisons is also because the current prisons are very outdated, which is logical. These buildings date back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But not only the buildings are outdated. The concept of prison is also hopelessly dated. Society has changed dramatically since then. Innovation is the key word of policymakers, but are modern prisons also part of a progressive prison system’s approach? In the coming decades we will be tied up on the choices we make now. The choices must therefore not only be consistent with the current social needs, but also with those in 20 years’ time.

A third reason is that politicians, together with the rest of us, are used to prisons as places for liberty-deprivation. It takes courage and perhaps some imagination to see that liberty-deprivation can also take place in small-scale detention houses. In fact, implementing liberty-deprivation in small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention houses is more in line with the principles underlying our Prison Act. Many Belgian politicians are getting convinced of the importance of detention houses. Expanding small-scale forms of detention is a concrete result of this. However, politicians consider detention houses as being part of a bigger picture, whilst considering large prisons absolutely necessary to solve the capacity problem in the short term. This is a quantitative-based argument that does not go into the very essence of the matter. After all, it does not take so much imagination to see that the 19th century prison concept is not best suited to meet current and future social needs. Focusing on small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated forms of detention would make a qualitative difference.

Replacing the outdated prisons facilities by small-scale, differentiated detention houses that are embedded in society, and no longer by mega prisons who will lead to a situation of ‘security overkill’ to the detriment of care and guidance of people in detention, would in my view demonstrate much more consistency in detention policy. It is time to get rid of our penitentiary heritage breaking the vicious circle for real.

Belgium takes first step towards a new penitentiary paradigm: the use of transition houses

The first Belgian transition house for prisoners has been officially inaugurated today by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Koen Geens: “It is important to give a detainee the opportunity to prepare for reintegration in society. I am pleased to be able to open the first transition house in Belgium today. The prisoner serving the last part of his prison sentence will be given the opportunity to work intensively on his return to society. Mechelen is doing its part in creating a safer society.” – On 14 January 2020 a second transition house will be set up in the Walloon municipality of Enghien/Edingen.

Belgium makes a first step towards small scale detention houses. A very special moment to celebrate! But first let’s take a look back at this interesting story and where it all began.

WHAT HAPPENED SO FAR

The major issues facing prisons today are broadly known. They can no longer be denied. Not a day goes by without someone criticising our prison system. Drug use, suicide, violence, staffing shortages, strikes, overcrowding, high degree of recidivism, unhygienic living conditions, condemnations by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and so on. The large prisons of a bygone era clearly show up negatively. The fact that their problems cause constant commotion in society indicates a great dissatisfaction with the system. These problems are not new, but society expects more from the prison system than before, and rightly so.

Hans Claus, Prison Governor in Oudenaarde and founder of VZW De Huizen, challenged the system: “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!” If we are to solve the current problems effectively, we must resolutely opt for a new penitentiary paradigm, namely small-scale detention houses.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!”
 

From the beginning it was the intention to really change things. “It is not the intention to just think about the prison system, we actually want to change the system also”. The development of a coherent concept was an important first step, but it was certainly not the ultimate goal. VZW De Huizen has always focused on getting into contact with politicians, after all, they decide whether the concept is translated into reality. In addition, the members of VZW De Huizen try to reach the wider public each in his/her own way by organising lectures, workshops and musical evenings. VZW De Huizen is expanding its network by contacting schools, universities, cultural centres and attending major events.

THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN TRANSITION

The hard work at all levels and the many contacts are paying off. In 2016 Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, presented a master plan for prisons. This plan aims to reduce overcrowding in prisons and renew infrastructure. It is also intended to better adapt the infrastructure to the reintegration of prisoners and provide alternatives to the traditional manner of enforcing sentences. The overall vision of the master plan is based on four pillars, one of which is a differentiated detention policy with transition houses. In November 2016 this plan was approved by the Council of Ministers. The first hurdle was taken.

In July 2018 the government issued a call for applications. Organisations got the opportunity to submit a file with the Federal Justice Service that should present a clear vision on how to run a transition house and contain a proposal regarding internal rules, as well as a plan that clearly describes how the project can be implemented in the neighbourhood. Thirteen organisations submitted a file. For Wallonia eight candidates were selected, in Flanders seven candidates successfully passed the selection procedure. Some of them put forward their candidacy for both Flanders and Wallonia.

After completing the procedure G4S was selected to open two transition houses, one in Mechelen and another one in Enghien/Edingen a few months later. Of course, questions can be asked about this choice. Is it morally acceptable to entrust detention of fellow citizens to a for-profit company? Even if it does not actually make a profit? Should we cross this line? Don’t we all know that commercialization of prisons has often had deplorable results?

THE TRANSITION HOUSE IN FLANDERS

We, along with some members of VZW De Huizen, got the opportunity to visit the transition house in Mechelen. It is nice to see how a concept that we have been thinking about for so many years has finally been translated into something tangible in practice. The first small-scale detention house is no longer a dream and is now part of the existing penal system.

The transition house in Mechelen, where 15 inmates are preparing for life after prison, is located in the city centre. The prisoners who are staying in the house are still ‘detained’. They are not yet released on parole and are not allowed to freely walk in and out the house. These prisoners, who sometimes have been in prison for a long time, need ‘transition’. In a transition house the focus is on the future, not on the past. This is called a strength-based approach. During his stay every prisoner is supported by a strength coach to prepare themselves for adjusting to life after prison. The key components of the reintegration plan are: housing, work, establishing relationships and the need for fulfilment. The aim is that prisoners should be self-reliant in an increasingly complex society.

Life in a transition house is normalised and life coaches assist in ensuring the smooth running of the day-to-day. Each prisoner has to do his own laundry and is responsible for preparing his own meals. They all have a room offering complete privacy, but everyday tasks take place in common areas. The prisoners’ sense of community is stimulated in this way and they also learn to assume responsibility.

THE TRANSITION HOUSE IN WALLONIA

 

We are already looking forward to the progress of these two wonderful projects.

FIRST EXPERIENCES AND FUTURE PLANS

In February 2020 we heard a positive story of a prisoner who is no longer in the transition house of Mechelen and who is currently under electronic monitoring. He talked about his experiences in an interview he gave to a newspaper. He said that the prison made him brain dead. The transition house opened up new possibilities.

You get the opportunity to take your life into your own hands again and participate fully in society.”
 

Master plan III provides for transition houses with a total of 100 places. At this moment there is a one-year pilot project providing places for 30 prisoners in the transition houses in Mechelen and in Enghien/Edingen. After a positive evaluation, the number of places will be extended to 100 throughout Belgium.

VZW De Huizen takes pride in the fact that policymakers finally support our concept. These two wonderful projects are the result of it. But it certainly does not stop here. We continue to advocate a completely new penitentiary paradigm. We hope there will be more transition houses but we are also focusing on detention houses for young adults and prisoners serving a short sentence. In this way we want to get each target group out of the prison system and provide accommodation in small-scale detention houses. We hope that our country will focus completely on a detention policy with detention houses, to put an end to the outdated prison system that has a mainly negative effect on prisoners.

The transition houses in Belgium are a good start but they are only a first step in the right direction.