BRUSSELS • Belgium faces a growing crisis in its prisons, with the army called in to help and inmates stuck in their cells 24 hours a day as the government struggles to end a strike by prison staff.
"The situation has become unbearable, there is a lot of tension inside," said Mr Vincent Spronck, the governor of Forest prison on the outskirts of the capital Brussels. "The inmates can't go out, they are stuck in their cells all day, they aren't getting fresh air, the bedsheets aren't getting changed, they are not allowed any visits," he told journalists on Tuesday. "We have to find a solution to this crisis."
The unprecedented strike is now in its third week and the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel is facing growing criticism at home and abroad for failing to get a grip on the problem.
The crisis has also put the spotlight back on Belgium's ability to govern itself in the face of deep communal and linguistic divisions, after criticism of the country's actions before and after the March 22 Brussels attacks.
Violence has broken out in many of the 17 prisons affected by the strike in the French-speaking region of Wallonia and mainly francophone Brussels as inmates become increasingly frustrated.
"The situation is nearly insurrectional" in some of the prisons, said lawyer Alexis Deswaef, president of Belgium's Human Rights League, adding that "detention conditions have become completely inhuman".
TENSION BUILDING UP
The situation has become unbearable, there is a lot of tension inside. The inmates can't go out, they are stuck in their cells all day, they aren't getting fresh air, the bedsheets aren't getting changed, they are not allowed any visits.
MR VINCENT SPRONCK, the governor of Forest prison on the outskirts of Brussels.
He said fights have begun between prisoners deprived of exercise and visits from family.
Over the weekend, prison wardens rejected a draft agreement between Justice Minister Koen Geens and their unions aimed at ending the strike which began over staffing cuts. As a result Belgium has been forced to call in six platoons of up to 30 soldiers each to help out, with three of them already deployed at three of the worst-hit prisons, including Forest.
The decision to call in the army is controversial.
"It looks like the blackest days of eastern Europe or like present-day Russia or North Korea," said the president of the Association of Francophone Prisons, Mr Marc Dizier.
Mr Deswaef added: "This sets a dangerous precedent, to use the army to sort out a social issue."
Dozens of striking workers gathered outside Forest prison on Tuesday to call on the government to resolve the row. A delegate for the CGSP union at Forest, Mr Olivier Masset, said it was "totally irresponsible to let the military with their pepper spray and batons" into prisons when the situation was already tense.
The crisis has set Belgium soul- searching again about its failure to tackle long-standing divisions between the Flemish and French- speaking communities which frequently paralyse official business.
"Is there nothing in our country that works as it should any more?" Belgium's Flemish-language newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws said in a blistering editorial this week.
It recalled the recent "Belgium- bashing" in the international press over the institutional failures by the police, justice and intelligence services that let the militants behind both the Brussels attacks and last November's Paris massacre slip through the net.
Belgium's prisons have also faced scrutiny for being breeding grounds for extremism, with several people involved in recent terror plots having allegedly been radicalised while in jail.
The strike in French-speaking Belgium has been viewed with incomprehension in richer Flanders, where prisons are in a far better condition than in the poorer Wallonia.