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COVID-19: Belgium's overcrowded prisons a 'powder keg' for infections

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COVID-19: Belgium's overcrowded prisons a 'powder keg' for infections
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Prisoners are among those forgotten during the pandemic. In countries like Belgium, their situation was already precarious, now it is a powder keg.

We spoke to two prisoners from inside two different prisons, who prefer to remain anonymous.

They point to serious hygiene problems. In some cases, it is impossible to wash their hands as there is no soap.

"Since 23 April, I wash myself with water. I had to wash my cell by myself with just water. I picked up the dirt of the prisoner before. What more can I say? The situation here is very bad. "

Maintaining social distancing in an overcrowded prison is proving impossible, as another inmate told us.

"We are all in the playground at the same time, they put us in the showers at the same time. For two months nothing has been done, apart from cancelling visits and activities. It does not make sense".

At the moment, there are only 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus among prisoners. But the real figure could be higher.

"Many inmates are afraid of declaring themselves sick because they know they will be changed from prison and probably confined," explains Gregory Wallez from CGSP prisons union.

Volunteer associations working with prisoners fear the worst.

"Overcrowding is such that the risk of infection is very high in prison," says Céline Lefèvre, Genepi NGO. "Staff that go in and out every day can infect prisoners, but also prisoners can infect staff."

When the confinement began, there were outbreaks of violence in various jails. There was frustration over visits being cancelled, and the activities that allow them to earn a little money were stopped.

To ease the pressure, the government has released a thousand prisoners who they believe do not pose a danger to the public. But long-term responses are needed.

"We have been complaining for a long time," explains Belgian MP, Gille Vanden Burre. "We did not wait for the pandemic to ask for the reduction of the number of people that are in prison 24 hours out of 24. Prison must be the last resort for serious crimes when there is no other choice".

Detainees and their families feel forgotten, and they eagerly wait for the government to fulfill its promise to establish a videoconferencing system.