Towards an optimal parenting context in detention

Deze foto van Onbekende auteur is gelicentieerd onder CC BY-ND

When a judge imposes a prison sentence, it has far-reaching consequences for the convicted person, for his or her family and the children involved. The consequences for children are often dire. For example, research warns that incarceration of a parent can disrupt children’s psychological and emotional development processes resulting in, for example, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and attachment problems.

While these problems can arise from the absence of a mother and father, international research shows that women in detention are often responsible for the main caregiving responsibilities. When incarcerated, their children cannot always call upon the social network of the parent and there is no or little possibility for successful bonding with a parent. In Belgian prisons, children under the age of three can therefore stay in prison with their mothers. Several prisons provide specific facilities for mothers with children. Mothers and children can make use of specific support on the wing and ‘child friendly’ facilities. For example, working mothers can use the prison’s childcare facilities and are supported by services that are also provided in free society such as ‘Kind en Gezin’ (child and family).

While the presence of children in prisons is a daily reality, it remains an under-researched topic in Belgium and abroad. This lack of attention from politicians, scientists and media results in an institutional invisibility of these children (Pösö et al., 2010). As a result, the effects of incarceration on mother and child remain underreported and political pressure to address this situation remains limited. Nevertheless, the need is high: children are not punished however they live in the same context as persons who are subjected to the most severe punishment known today within the Belgian and European criminal justice system: imprisonment. In international literature such a stay in prison leads to a lot of complex debates that are situated at the intersection of different themes such as parental rights, children‘s rights, duties of parents and legal restrictions on imprisoned parents that make it difficult or impossible for them to take on certain responsibilities. This blogpost does not offer answers to all of these complex questions. We limit ourselves to the matter on how to ensure the rights of children and parents as much as possible in a society that permits the deprivation of mothers’ liberty. We moreover focus on the increasing political awareness on finding solutions.

THE CURRENT BELGIAN SYSTEM FALLS SHORT FOR MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN IN DETENTION

Despite all efforts, we see that it is difficult to respect children’s rights in prison. This is partly because the systemic structures of today’s prisons do not sufficiently allow for the creation of a child-friendly environment. After all, in a prison there is institutional violence that interacts in subtle ways with all incarcerated persons. Despite the fact that children are not subject to punishment, their mere presence in this context makes them subject to control. Indeed, people in detention acquire certain codes and behaviour that allow them to survive in a highly controlled environment. Children even begin to normalize this control and adapt their behaviour. Striking examples from research describe, for example, how children re-enact situations in which they constantly count how many people are locked up in the cells (Tabbush & Gentile, 2013). In a Belgian study, a mother expressed her concern that her daughter imitates her and stands with her arms and legs spread as the mother does during a body search (Nuytiens & Jehaes, 2020). Clearly, children get used to institutional forms of control that are far removed from the context in which we want to see children grow up and flourish.

Women do not experience prison as a place where they can adequately perform their caregiving duties as mothers. Often, incarceration is accompanied by feelings of guilt and concerns about the impact of incarceration on parenting. Mothers feel they have failed as a parent because their child(ren) live(s) within the strict routine of prisons. The prison routine does not allow to respect their child’s rhythm. In Belgian research, mothers refer very specifically to the many hours they spend with their child in the limited space of the cell. This limited exercise space hinders children from getting rid of their energy. In addition, mothers feel ashamed about their daily humiliations, exposed to their children (Nuytiens & Jehaes, 2020).

While the context limits ways to perform a mother role, it remains important to encourage mothers to take on their parental duties. Not only for the mothers and children in question but also for our broader society. Studies on the desistance process from crime show that parenting can play an important role. Desistance refers to the gradual process by which people eventually stop committing crime. During this process, changes in perceptions of identity play a central role. In a variety of studies, individuals testify that taking on a father or mother role can change the perceptions of one’s identity in a positive way. One then no longer sees oneself as a delinquent but primarily as a father or mother.

It is therefore in the interest of the child, the mother and society at large to create an optimal parenting context.

A CRITICAL NOTE

Before we elaborate on ways to improve conditions for mothers with children, we wish to stress that this remains a pragmatic solution for countries that allow the imprisonment of parents. In our opinion, we should use detention houses only as an ultimum remedium and within a reductionist detention policy. Thus, a detention house for women should never legitimize the all too easy imprisonment of mothers with their children. This is in line with the view of the Council of Europe. It recommends that prior to sentencing, consideration should always be given to whether there is an alternative to detention for the parent, especially when it comes to a parent taking primary care of the child.

Thus, improvements to detention conditions should not prevent larger discussions on whether societies should abolish the incarceration of parents. Since it is still allowed in Belgium to imprison parents, the implementation of the proposal below should, in our opinion, go hand in hand with a system that takes a critical look at any deprivation of liberty. Below we describe models that allow to limit detention harm, but we wish to emphasize that any form of deprivation of liberty causes harm.

WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM ABROAD?

While Belgian politicians only recently started to search for ways to starkly improve the situation for mothers in detention, other countries have more experience with specific detention modalities for mothers. Before we elaborate on the proposals that came to the forefront in Belgium, we take a look at the situation in Spain, a country with a longer history on detention modalities for mothers with children. To our knowledge, Spain is one of the few countries in Europe that pays specific attention to small-scale and community integrated prison modalities for mothers with children.

In Spain, article 38.2 General Penitentiary Organic Law (LOGP) regulates the presence of minor children inside prisons. Women who are imprisoned can keep their young children with them. Since the 1980s, a series of structures were set up looking for optimal prison conditions. This is how the following four structures were put into operation:

— First, there are Mothers’ Units (or mothers’ modules) (Articles 17 and 178 -181 Real Decreto por el que se aprueba el Reglamento Penitenciario 190/1996, 9 February (RP)). These are specific modules inside closed prisons. The modules are, however, architecturally separated from the rest of the building. As a consequence, there is no interaction between children and other prisoners. Most of the children under the age of three who accompany their mothers during the sentence reside in these modules inside the prisons. Although these modules are defined as adapted to children’s needs, in reality, children do not have enough outdoor spaces or ample places to move freely. Additionally, children have to get used to the prison regulations, the rules of coexistence and schedules that regulate daily prison life.

– Second, there are Family Modules or Family Units. In these units, father and mother jointly share the raising of children, only in those cases in which both are serving a prison sentence in a closed prison.

— Third, there are Dependent Units or “halfway houses”. These are small homes for people that are categorised as posing a low security threat or that are eligible for the open regime[1]. These houses are generally managed by NGOs in cooperation with Penitentiary Institutions. Article 165 RP defines Dependent Units as “architecturally located units outside the prison grounds, preferably in ordinary dwellings in the community environment, without any sign of external distinction related to their dedication”. Although there is not much research on this issue and the law does not specify much more about the development of motherhood in these Units, it has been considered important to refer to an example of a Dependent Unit that houses mothers with their children in Spain, the case of the Dependent Unit associated to the Prison Alcalá de Guadaira (Seville, Andalusia). It is a Dependent Unit, managed by the “Nuevo Futuro” association since 1992, and consists of a home to house women who pose a low security threat and who have their children under three years of age with them (there are some cases in which they can house second level inmates, but this is of a more exceptional nature).  As stated in the Defensor del Pueblo Report (2006): “It is a house, with capacity for eight women with their children, located in the urban centre of Seville. It consists of a central patio, three floors and a roof terrace; on the ground floor there is an office for the prison officer stationed there, a living room, a children’s playroom, kitchen, dining room and a toilet, on the 2nd and 3rd floor are the bedrooms and the rest of the rooms ” (p. 191). The organization of life within the home corresponds to the Association “Nuevo Futuro”  and the regime of the women inmates mainly consists of domestic tasks, attention and care of children, etc. The inmates compliance with the schedules, behaviour and additional leaves are supervised by the Penitentiary´s Institution staff, but staff members do not wear a uniform. In addition, women can also be supported by the prison psychologist or social worker. The reality is that these Dependent Units are less and less used in Spain. Since third-level inmates who are women with children started to be housed, an attempt is being made to intensify the fully open third-level concession as well as the use of electronic monitoring to avoid transferring this type of inmates to these Dependent Units.

— Lastly, there are Mothers´ External Units. In 2004, the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions decided to remove children from prisons. In order to achieve this goal, external units were built, away from the penitentiary centres with a vocation of integration in the community. These units are a “hybrid” model between the Dependent Units and the Mothers’ Units inside the prisons. These External Units depend on the so-called Social Insertion Centres (open prisons), and are located away from prisons that are usually located next to the Social Insertion Centres where women can live. These units can house:

  1. convicted women classified in ordinary regime who are in charge of children under three years of age;
  2. women in a situation of preventive detention (awaiting a final judicial sentence) with minor children in their care (under three years of age), only when authorized by the judge after an evaluation;
  3. exceptionally, these units house third-level inmates or inmates in open regime (however, these women usually go to dependent units);
  4. women who are pregnant for six months and who find themselves in circumstances described above
  5. exceptionally, children will be allowed to stay with their mothers until the age of six. After three years, it will be evaluated whether their presence in prison is a better alternative than being separated from the mother. Also, women assigned to the Unit with a child under three may request the admission of another child not older than six years.

In order to serve their sentence in Mothers´ External Units, women have to accept the acquisition of work, voluntary and active participation in the proposed therapeutic programs, maintaining healthy lifestyle and conduct in accordance with the rules and participation in a therapeutic program in the case she is or has been a drug user. Also, these units have “non-aggressive” surveillance based on electronic surveillance control systems composed of cameras, alarms and presence detectors. Obviously, children are not subject to any measure of legal restraint. The main objective for them is to enjoy childhood, having contact with the outside world and relating to their families and other children.

RESCALED BELGIUM AND DETENTION HOUSES FOR MOTHERS

It is clear that several European countries have been developing different forms of detention over the years in order to be able to respect children’s and parents’ rights. In Belgium, vzw De Huizen/RESCALED proposes the concept of detention houses for mothers and children. It is believed that this will improve their situation.

These detention houses, similar to the Dependent Units in Spain, are small-scale forms of deprivation of liberty that are integrated in society and allow for differentiation. In this way, we can minimize detention harm, develop an approach tailored to the women and children who reside there. Additionally, mothers can resume responsibilities and perform caring responsibilities. Moreover, proper guidance in taking up the mother role can promote the development of the bond between mother and child. Finally, the domestic atmosphere of the detention house allows children to live and grow at their pace.

This model suits most incarcerated mothers because, generally speaking, this group poses little to no escape risk. While a closed and highly secured prison cuts itself off from society, detention houses remain connected to the immediate environment thanks to their proximity and integration in the community. This facilitates visits from other children and family members or services and mothers. Moreover, children have the opportunity to maintain or re-establish social contacts and have access to services outside the house. This uninterrupted connection with the neighbourhood and the social anchoring of the detention house ensure the disappearance of an institutionalized living environment, allowing us to actually work on reintegration.

(Do you want to know more about the RESCALED-concept? www.rescaled.org / www.dehuizen.be )

POLITICAL SUPPORT

In Belgium, political support for this kind of detention houses is growing.

In September 2019, Belgium opened its first transition house. This house is similar to what is internationally known as a halfway house. In Belgium it is a house, integrated in the community, which accommodates imprisoned persons. Imprisoned persons within 18 months before their legal conditional release date can be transferred to a transition house. Consequently, this house is only open for people who find themselves in a specific part of their detention trajectory. Political awareness is growing that not only this specific group of people might benefit from small-scale detention. In 2020, this was emphasized by the new federal government’s coalition agreement. This agreement states that:

In cooperation with the communities, the federal government creates a framework to actively prepare the reintegration of prisoners from the start of their sentence through individual detention plans, the strengthening of psychosocial services, and the further development of small-scale detention projects for certain groups of prisoners (e.g. parents with children, detainees shortly before release, young offenders, etc.) (Federal Coalition agreement, 2020: 71).

The current debates in the Justice Commission of the Federal Parliament, show that the opening of new houses is high on the political agenda and several steps are being taken to open new houses in the near future (e.g. mayors have been contacted in order to find support for the opening of new houses and at the beginning of August, 19 communities showed their interest in a detention house). While the coalition agreement states that the detention houses should improve reintegration in society, an analysis of the debates in the parliament shows that this is also clearly linked to other goals such as the improvement of detention conditions.

In the Parliament, debates that focus on the incarceration of mothers in detention additionally provide insight into the broader policy for parents in detention that the Minister aims to develop. In January 2021, the Minister stressed his belief that detention houses will reduce recidivism. Besides the previously mentioned goals of detention houses (reintegration, improvement of detention conditions, expansionism), a reduction of recidivism is another goal that increasingly pops up. Moreover, and on a critical note, the interpretation of what reintegration means often appears to be reduced to the absence of recidivism. When questioned in regard to the opening of a detention house for children and mothers, the Minister clarifies this policy view:

The desire to focus on “parents with children” is related to the desire to reduce recidivism. After all, we know that maintaining family ties is an asset for effective reintegration. That said, it is still too early to determine exactly which groups will be considered for detention houses, since that will depend on several factors, such as the nature of the buildings chosen and their geographical location, but it will obviously be the intention to target specific groups of detainees, whom we will provide with an adapted framework and supervision, with a view to reducing recidivism. (Justice Commission, 21 January 2021: 11).

Later on, in May 2021, the Minister repeats his intention to open detention houses for people with a specific profile such as women with or without children. Concerning the specific group of women with children, he highlights that Belgian’s largest prison with 1190 places, that is currently being built, will have an external unit that is adapted to mothers with a child. In the future, the Minister generally hopes that detention houses will provide a better context for parents:

…In this regard, it is certainly possible to provide a transition house for women, with or without children. In addition, on the Haren prison site, outside the perimeter, there will be a number of small-scale units of which one is adapted to mother and child, and where detention conditions will be created that meet the same principles of small scale and porosity. Small-scale detention houses are an interesting addition to the existing capacity, but added value should not be limited to mothers only. There are few women who have a child with them during detention. Also for other parents a transition home or a detention house often provides added value, because contact can be made with children in a much more homely atmosphere (Justice Commission, 11 May 2021: 23).

Clearly, this policy entails some improvements to the current detention conditions of mothers in large prisons. However, it is also stressed that these houses are seen as an ‘addition to the existing capacity’ and are not considered as a replacement of prisons but are being opened to increase the country’s prison capacity. For decades now Belgium is facing serious prison overcrowding. At this moment the overcrowding rate is still one of the highest in Europe. National and international pressure currently results in expansionist policies rather than reduction in the use of imprisonment. Detention houses clearly play a role in this expansionist policy. The larger debates on the use of imprisonment that we hoped detention houses would provoke, are unfortunately absent. Another negative note is about the belief that an external unit of what will be the largest prison of Belgium can provide the same support as detention houses. However, we wish to stress that the units remain part of a larger entity that is located in a remote area.

FUTURE PERSPECTIVES

Nowadays we must not remain blind for the far-reaching and pernicious consequences of a stay in prison, especially when it comes to our children who are not undergoing punishment. We even dare hope that this awareness can also lead to broader adjustments, including for parents whose children are not staying with them in prison. After all, we hope to evolve towards an optimal parenting context for all children. Also for children with a parent in detention. For these reasons, we advise politicians to re-examine the incarceration of mothers and children; and of parents in general. The modalities in Spain, as discussed above, show that some countries pay special attention to this group in detention. Belgium cannot stay behind.

We believe that small scale and community integrated detention houses can be part of this solution. Moreover it is our opinion that this approach should be part of a wider debate on imprisonment and especially the imprisonment of parents and its impact on children. For us, a critical look at the imprisonment of parents (regardless of the place where detention takes place) is crucial and intrinsically connected to this debate.

Critical reflection on the current Belgian policy in relation to detention houses is necessary. We encourage all efforts to improve detention conditions focusing on detention houses to achieve this goal, but at the same time we are worried about the fact that this is embedded in an expansionist prison policy. We moreover recognize the need for a thorough discussion on the interpretation of reintegration, as a more complex process rather than a reduction of recidivism. Finally, we wish to stress that also detention houses can cause harm. We therefore believe that criminal justice interventions and criminal punishment should always be seen and used as ultimum remedium.

REFERENCES:

  • Defensor del Pueblo Andaluz (2006). Mujeres privadas de libertad en centros penitenciarios de Andalucía. Informe al Parlamento. Defensor del Pueblo Andaluz.
  • Martí, M. (2021). Prisoners in the community: the open prison model in Catalonia. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab, 106(2), 211–231. doi:10.7146/ntfk.v106i2.124777
  • Ministerio del Interior-Secretaría General de Instituciones Penitenciarias. Unidades      externas de madres. Ministerio del Interior-Secretaría General Técnica.
  • Navarro Villanueva, C. (2018). El encarcelamiento femenino. Barcelona: Atelier. Libros Jurídicos.
  • Nuytiens, A. & Jehaes, E. (2020). When your child is your cellmate: The ‘maternal pains of imprisonment’ in a Belgian prison nursery. Criminology & Criminal Justice,
  • Pösö, T. ; Enroos, R. & Vierula, T. (2010). Children Residing in Prison with their Parents. The Prison Journal, 90, 516-533.
  • Real Decreto 190/1996, de 9 de febrero, por el que se aprueba el Reglamento Penitenciario.
  • Tabbush, C. & Gentile, M.F. (2013). Emotions behind bars: The Regulation of Mothering in Argentine Jails. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 39 (1), 131-149.

[1]  “level three, similar to the English category D, corresponds to people who are serving prison terms under open conditions. Towards the end of their sentences, third-level prisoners may be released on parole” (Martí, 2019, p. 213).

Photo of unknown author licensed by CC BY-ND 


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.