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Welfare work in the Brussels prisons: a puzzle with many pieces

Travail social dans les prisons bruxelloises : un puzzle aux nombreuses pièces
Justitieel welzijnswerk in de Brusselse gevangenissen: een puzzel met veel stukjes
Liesbeth Naessens
Cet article est une traduction de :
Justitieel welzijnswerk in de Brusselse gevangenissen: een puzzel met veel stukjes
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Travail social dans les prisons bruxelloises : un puzzle aux nombreuses pièces


Les besoins d’aide sociale des détenus sont souvent complexes et difficiles à satisfaire parce qu’ils se manifestent dans différents domaines de la vie. Diverses organisations s’efforcent de répondre à ces besoins en dispensant une assistance sociale aux détenus et à leurs proches. Cette aide couvre plusieurs domaines, comme l’enseignement, la culture, l’emploi, le sport, la santé, le bien-être… Les services d’aide sociale aux justiciables jouent un rôle important dans ce contexte. Le présent article s’intéresse à la particularité organisationnelle spécifique de l’aide sociale aux justiciables de Bruxelles. Nous étudions aussi les résultats d’une enquête de terrain, menée par la Haute école Odisee, centrée sur l’action des services d’aide sociale aux justiciables à Bruxelles, sur leur réseau et sur leur collaboration avec d’autres services.

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1Often detainees are not only confronted with criminal justice problems, but also with many other social problems such as addiction, debts, mental health problems... making the welfare needs of prisoners complex and difficult to fulfil. By supplying assistance and services to detainees and their relatives, different organizations try to formulate an answer to these needs. This kind of assistance and services extends over various domains such as education, culture, employment, sports, health, well-being... The services for criminal justice welfare work are playing an important role in this matter. This contribution focuses on the Brussels criminal justice welfare work which, in comparison with Flanders and Wallonia, has a specific identity because of the Brussels context. After all, the Brussels criminal justice welfare work is characterized by its institutional and organizational entanglement.

2A practice-oriented survey, called “JWW BXL: a strong network”, was held between September 2015 and September 2017. The survey analyses how the collaboration between the various organizations proceeds at case level. The questions asked were: To what extent do they work together?; What are the difficulties and strengths experienced in working together?; How can the network meet these difficulties? This project was realized using the funds of the Practical Scientific Research (PWO) of the Odisee College made available by the Flemish Government.

3We start this contribution by discussing the criminal justice welfare work within the complexity of Brussels. Then, we focus on the sector as a network. And, finally, we highlight the results of the survey.

1. Criminal justice welfare work in Brussels

4A large part of the work of the Brussels services for criminal justice welfare work is located in the Brussels prisons. End 2016 it was decided to merge the various Brussels prisons (Vorst - Berkendael and Sint-Gillis) into a single Brussels prison. This merger is already visible, e.g. the appointment of one senior director for the Brussels prison [Commissie van Toezicht (Supervisory Committee) Sint-Gillis, 2016]. The current prisons are over a hundred years old. As a result, assistance and services to detainees have a rich history in Brussels. Due to the large amount of (former) prisoners, a lot of different services - proceeding from volunteering groups - arose in Brussels, providing assistance and services to this target group [Floré et al., 2006]. Until 1980, the Department of Justice was responsible for social work with regard to detainees. As a result of the state reforms in 1980 and 1988 the matters relating to the individual were transferred to the communities. This gave them the opportunity to develop an offer with regard to people in provisional detention, (former) prisoners and their relatives, independent of an intervention from the justice department. The Department of Justice remained responsible for the execution of the sentence itself. On the one hand this resulted in social work provided by the Federal Public Service (FPS) Justice, especially by the psychosocial services (PSD) in the prisons. The PSD is a multidisciplinary team within the prison that provides advice on the execution of the various freedom depriving punishments. The PSD also accompanies the detainees in the preparation of their probation service. On the other hand, it resulted in assistance and services provided by the communities. The services for criminal justice welfare work or les services d'aide sociale aux justiciables offer first-line welfare work to (former) prisoners and their relatives within this framework. The services work independently of the criminal justice interventions, which implies that confidentiality, voluntariness and professional secrecy are important starting points.

5For the criminal justice welfare work in Brussels, the transfer of powers was the genesis of a complex institutional framework. Both the French and the Flemish Communities, as well as the Common Community Commission became responsible for the assistance and services delivered to this target group. Independently from one another, the various authorities developed their own forensic welfare policies. Currently, six generalist services for criminal justice welfare work are active within the Brussels prisons. These six generalist services are acting within a framework of different types of regulations, but their offer with regard to the target groups is broadly similar. They provide general assistance to individuals (and their relatives) who came or are at risk to come in contact with the law, they operate independently from the FDS Justice and share the same field of activity. What they supply consists on the one hand of offering individual assistance and on the other hand organizing activities for detainees. For the French Community it is the Service Laïque d'Aide aux Justiciables et aux Victimes (Secular Support Service for Litigants and Victims or SLAJ-V); for the Flemish Community, it is the Justitieel Welzijnswerk Brussel (Brussels Justice Welfare Service), housed within the Centrum Algemeen Welzijnswerk (Center for General Welfare Work). The Common Community Commission (GGC) recognizes four generalist services: APO; the Dienst voor Sociale Re-integratie (DSR)/Service de Réinsertion Sociale (SRS) (Social Reintegration Service); the Stichting voor Morele Bijstand aan Gevangenen (SMBG)/Fondation pour l'Assistance Morale aux Détenus (FMAD) (Foundation for Moral Assistance to Prisoners) and finally, the Werk voor Sociale Wederaanpassing/Office de Réadaptation Sociale (ORS)1 (Service for Social Re-adaptation). In addition to these generalist services, the various communities also subsidize more specialist organizations offering their services in the prisons. These specialist services focus on one specific issue such as addiction, mental health, immigration law, parent-child relationship, education...

6In order to be able to collaborate smoothly with the Department of Justice within each of the communities, those communities each concluded separate collaboration agreements with the Department of Justice. The Flemish and French communities did it in 1994 and renewed it in 2014, the Common Community Commission in 1999. With these collaboration agreements the role of the communities is recognized in the prisons. On the supra-local level, each community has created a coordination function: the community coordinator (GGC), the Délégué direction du partenariat (French Community) and the beleidscoördinator (Flemish Community) support and coordinate the services operating within their own community. Despite working within different frameworks and having different tasks, these coordinators meet each other on the working field in order to implement further collaboration and coordination over the borders of the various communities.

2. A network in Brussels: why?

7The institutional context in which each community uses a different framework and offers different services in the Brussels prisons implies a fragmentation of the assistance and services provided to detainees in Brussels. Such a situation creates a lot of ambiguity both for the own employees, for the target group and for the actors within the justice department (prison management, PSD...). Because of this fragmentation, coordination, collaboration and a shared vision within the Brussels services for criminal justice welfare work are necessary [Pieraerts and Martin, 2002; Floré et al., 2006; Claes and Van Parys, 2013].

8Networks are seen as a response to the fragmentation of the welfare services [Allen, 2003; Walter and Petr, 2000]. A first reason to form a network within the Brussels criminal justice welfare work is the institutionally complex situation and the tangle of involved organizations. In the Ministerial Decree of March 27, 2006, it was decided to establish the Consultative Committee for Criminal Justice Welfare Work. In that way, the United College met the need for collaboration and coordination. The tasks of the consultative committee are: the organization of a permanent consultation between all parties involved; supporting and promoting collaboration and coordination at the executive level; giving advice to the competent authorities on the existing and future policies on criminal justice welfare work within the territory of Brussels-Capital [A.M. June 4, 2013, art. 2]. The duty to coordinate and collaborate between the parties involved is therefore legally anchored. The consultative committee meets every six weeks and is composed of one representative per competent minister, one representative per competent administration, one representative per department, a coordinator per community and a coordinator for the specialist external services. Prison management is invited every two meetings.

9Secondly, working together in a network within this context makes sense because of the individuality of the target group. As mentioned above, detainees often already have many problems before they end up in prison [Roberts and Brownell, 1999; Green, Thorpe and Traupman, 2005; Sheenan, 2012]. The criminal justice problems and the detention are an addition to – and also a reinforcement of – the already existing problems. This means that prisons house people with not just legal problems, but also with behavioural, relational and psychiatric problems, many people struggling with debts, with addictions...This implies that work has to be done in many areas to meet the needs of the detainees. So, the different services are faced with an enormous challenge. It is therefore impossible for one service alone to provide an answer to all the questions of the target group. Networks are defined as bodies that realize added value which cannot be achieved by the individual services alone [Provan and Milward, 1995]. In order to achieve qualitative assistance, collaboration with other services in a network is a must.

10The six services for criminal justice welfare work mainly offer some general assistance. In doing so, they focus on a broad approach to the situation of the detainee and his immediate social environment. From this approach, they also profile themselves as generalist services for criminal justice welfare work. They work together with more specialist services in order to meet the different needs of the target group, for example when met with an addiction problem. The collaboration between generalist and specialist services offers added value for vulnerable target groups such as detainees [Maschi, 2009; Ellem et al., 2012; Raeymaeckers, 2016]. The specialized services focus on one specific problem or target group while generalist social work focuses on different target groups or problems in different areas of life [Blom, 2004; Perlinski et al., 2013; Raeymaeckers, 2016]. In view of a smooth reintegration of the detainees into society, the services for criminal justice welfare work therefore together with numerous organizations both within and outside the prison walls.

3. Methodology

11Networks can be analysed from different perspectives. We focus on the perspective of the social worker within the network. After all, social workers are the actors which give concrete shape to the collaboration in the field. They experience how the institutional and organizational context influences their work. For this research we focus on generalist social work services. We opt for the approach of the generalist services because they assume a central role in providing assistance and services with regard to the target group. After all, they must on the one hand provide a general supply of assistance and services and on the other hand connect with other and more specialized services. Because we cannot ignore the role of institutional frameworks and structures, we also interviewed the coordinators of the generalist services and the coordinators of the various communities.

12The data collection was done in phases: first, two focus groups were created with social workers from various generalist services of the Brussels criminal justice welfare work (n = 10). On the one hand, these focus groups ensured that we could tailor the literature study to the specific Brussels context of this research. On the other hand, the focus groups provided input for the concrete questionnaire for the in-depth interviews. The very phased way of working allows us to interview in a more targeted way during the next phase of data collection [Mortelmans, 2011]. For the in-depth interviews, we interviewed both social workers and coordinators of generalist services. Finally, the coordinators of the various communities were also interviewed, resulting in a total of 22 in-depth interviews.

13To steer the qualitative interviews in the right direction, we used a semi-structured questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of questions concerning the interviewee and the organization (seniority, task, supply and history of the organization). We then asked the respondents about their collaboration at various levels: first, between the generalist services themselves, then with more specialist services which offered their services within the prison walls and with organizations outside the prison. Then, we questioned the interviewees about the consultation structure and the expectations. All interviews were recorded and literally transcribed. A computer program for qualitative research (Nvivo 11) was used during the coding phase. The labels were ordered according to their content. Then core labels and sub labels were formed and defined [Baarda et al., 2013]. This label scheme was developed on the basis of the questionnaire and was further shaped by patterns in respondents' answers.

14Prior to the interview, each respondent received sufficient information about the research and an informed consent was signed. The focus groups were held in January 2016, the interviews in the period from March to June 2016. In the final phase, the findings from the study were verified with the respondents (n = 6) via a members check meeting. In this article quotes are used to illustrate or to reinforce the main lines of conversation.

4. Results

4.1. Collaboration

15Previous research shows that, in the past, the various services still knew little about each other's supply [Floré and Snacken, 2007]. Currently, this is much less the case, certainly between generalist services. There are a lot of informal contacts, the services know each other, and good practices are being exchanged. In recent years, the network has made efforts to improve the mutual relationships. For example, it regularly organizes informal activities for professionals, which benefit exchanges and interrelationships. There has already been a big leap in this area, but because the sector suffers a huge staff turnover, lasting efforts are needed.

16The generalist services mainly work together on an organizational level, for example to organize activities for the target group or meetings in working groups on a specific theme. A social worker puts it as follows “collaboration has become a habit within the generalist services, we find each other easily to work out something together”. At a case level, the generalist services do not work together very much, because of the similar services they propose. In order to use the available resources and staff as optimally as possible, one tries to avoid that generalist services answer the demand from one same client. Despite the collaboration agreements that were made, there are still regular so-called doublons (duplicates). In that case, the social workers concerned solve this in a constructive way: the other care provider is approached and together they examine who is most appropriate to follow up on the client. Nevertheless, lasting attention is needed from the network to avoid duplication of work.

17However, the generalists work on a case-by-case level with other more specialized organizations both inside and outside the prison walls. Knowing each other is generally cited as important in order to work together. In addition, it is indicated that collaboration is often a matter of informal contacts: “In fact you often start creating your own small network with people you have already worked with”. You can easily fall back on organizations or social workers with whom you have already collaborated constructively and which could be trusted in the past. Another important assignment is to support clients in making contact with another organization. Simply redirecting a client to a service often does not work with this target group. After all, the services are often overburdened, questions do not end up with the right service or clients stop in the event of a setback. For these reasons, it is important to follow up on the referral, both with contacts inside and outside the prison. Continuing to support and motivate clients is important. Nevertheless, social workers indicate that this follow-up is impossible due to the heavy workload, while ideally this should be done for every client. The generalist social workers are not able to adequately follow-up all their clients and to keep an overview due to the large number of requests. This is, however, precisely the added value of a generalist social worker.

4.2. Thresholds in the emergency services

18The collaboration with the specialist services that offer services in prison is relatively smooth. If difficulties arise, this has to do with a limited supply, a large staff turnover or limited (telephone) accessibility.

19Social workers indicate that there are still a lot of barriers in working with detainees outside the prison. First, there still seems to be a prejudice surrounding the target group. The term detainee or prison still closes a lot of doors: “Let me put it this way, our clients are not the most popular clients”. Social workers experience that the personality of the detainee is often narrowed down to the offenses committed. In that case, the intervention of the social worker is necessary to broaden this perspective to a person with certain welfare needs. Organizations are also not always prepared to work with this target group, since, after release, it often concerns imposed conditions. In that case, services often assume that detainees are mainly extrinsically motivated to seek guidance or training, which is a letdown for a number of organizations.

20Second, social workers and their clients are often confronted with organizational thresholds. The admission procedures are not always tailored to detainees and the prison. For example, clients must register at a specific time; the offer is region-bound, so people from another region are not eligible; the necessary documents have to be gathered in advance, which is not easy for prisoners; there are waiting lists; services are only accessible in a limited way... The social workers have an important task in this area in adapting the existing procedures and working methods of organizations to the possibilities of the detained client. If, for example, a service from another region is not prepared to come to the Brussels prison for an intake, they try to do the intake interview by telephone or ask a similar Brussels service to do the intake.

21Prejudice and organizational thresholds are not the only problem. According to the respondents, there is certainly also a structural shortage of resources which causes thresholds. Respondents indicated that many organizations are faced with limited resources so they are not able to come to the prison or to provide this target group with an adequate supply of services. Whether or not to develop a supply of services to (former) prisoners in Brussels remains too often dependent on the goodwill of organizations.

22Moreover, the existing thresholds reinforce each other. “Yes, due to the limited supply, I think they would probably like to play things safely. In that case, someone who comes out of prison is not always a safe choice to fill in that one place”. As a result of these dynamics, the social workers often take on the role of an advocate for their client. They try to bring about change within other organizations to lower the thresholds for their clients. To achieve that goal, they attempt to convince other organizations to adapt their offer to the client's specific needs; they point out their social responsibility towards this target group. “Sometimes I really say: just listen for a moment before you say that you cannot help people in prison”. As an advocate, the social worker works with the other organization to still formulate an answer to the client's request for help. In this area, the network regularly takes actions. For example, organizations are invited to the prison in the hope that they will get to know better the target group and their needs, so that the existing thresholds will be reduced for the entire population of Brussels detainees.

4.3. Working conditions in prison

23Throughout the interviews, the working conditions in the prison were frequently discussed as an impediment to the collaboration. To adapt the own supply of services to the prison context is not evident. It is indicated that the work is often time-consuming and inefficient because, for example, people often have no access to a conversation room, telephone or PC. It could be much more efficiently organized. I have to enter here (in prison), first see the detainee and then do all the work in my office. So I cannot work immediately with the detainee, I have to do it afterwards and then I have to go back and say I did this, this and this”.

24In addition, both the individual and the group supply of services are regularly disrupted for reasons which have nothing to do with the external assistance and services. For example, the activities of the services are often cancelled or the social workers are denied access to the prison as a result of trade union actions organized by the prison guards. A typical example is that in the period between June 2015 and January 2017 no group activity (courses, etc.) could be organized in the prison of Saint-Gilles. This despite the detainee's right to assistance and services and collaboration agreements to provide assistance and services in the prisons.

25Next respondents also indicated that they are not consulted in the event of changes in the prison that have an immediate impact on the work of the social workers. The respondents have a strong feeling that they have to constantly adjust the own supply to the prison instead of being able to develop it further. The current rationalization exercise “Working differently” is a good example. In the period between 2015 and 2019, the federal government decided to save 10 % on staff resources. For this purpose, the rationalization project “Working differently” was started in the various prisons. Its impact is particularly great on the supply of assistance and services. The moments when activities can be executed have become scarcer [Paterson, 2017].

26The above makes it very difficult to provide social work in the Brussels prisons. Due to these specific working conditions, the extent to which and the way in which the assignments can be executed and the collaboration with other services can be organized remain very unpredictable. As a result, realizing the social rights of detainees remains very precarious within the Brussels prisons. It also puts additional pressure on the network because practitioners also have expectations in that area regarding the network.

4.4. The expectations regarding the network

27Since the Consultative Committee for Criminal Justice Welfare Work is a central body within this network, we highlight the expectations with regard to the Consultative Committee. As explained above, the mandate of the Consultative Committee for Criminal Justice Welfare Work is threefold: firstly, to organize consultations, secondly, to coordinate at executive level and finally to give advice to the competent authorities [M.B. June 4, 2013].

28The analysis shows that the social workers know the consultative committee and are in favour of its existence. According to them, it is the only place where all those concerned can gather and meet, and they indicate that collaboration is necessary. They also see this consultative committee as an institution which gives them a voice in the debate. In addition, they expect that the consultative committee facilitates further optimization of the specific work practices. For example, the generalists state that they need information. The fact that they have a generalist approach, after all, means that they must have a broad knowledge. They must know the changes in legislation, in the supply of other services, in procedures, they must be aware of the internal changes in the prisons... Relevant information is often discovered sporadically, and a more structured information flow would be an added value. For this purpose they look at the consultative committee as the umbrella organization of the various services.

29The social workers expect the coordination and the organization of the generalist's supply of services to go smoothly, just like the good informal contacts between them. Some social workers dream aloud of one great service for criminal justice welfare work, or one single house where all the services are gathered. “One service would make it much easier, no? You would not need all that consultation, the communication would be easier, there would be less time lost...” According to them, it would promote collaboration between generalist services. In the 2007 study it already was a recommendation to merge and decompartmentalize the GGC services in order to achieve a more coherent entity [Floré and Snacken, 2007]. A structure has already been created, including thematic working groups where people meet and further shape ideas. A social worker puts it this way: “Those workgroups did not exist at the time, then everyone was working in its own field and, if there was already an activity, you were asked that if you had participants, you would please pass them on. But now we have the groups, we are trying to immediately involve all services, the PSD and the management in those groups, because that is easier and we want something that is supported by everyone”. When you want to organize or undertake something, that structure has helped to create the reflex to involve other actors.

30The collaboration is nevertheless fragile. Rethinking practical collaboration arrangements calls for much debate and plenty of time. Faced with practical problems, social workers mainly want a rapid solution and clarity, they are rather pragmatic in this matter and find it difficult to understand why finding a solution takes such a long time. Coordinators also indicate that the difficulty to reach an agreement is a problem. This is striking, since they are part of the consultative committee. As an explanation for this problem, the coordinators refer to the institutional framework in Brussels. It often proves difficult to reach a consensus from the various frameworks.

31It is also expected that the services originating from the network have a stronger voice with regard to the policy in the Brussels prisons. We already stated how difficult it is to implement the own supply of services into the prison context because of the working conditions. On top of that, the living conditions in the prisons are still very poor. “The prison of Vorst is so inhuman, it is totally unthinkable for the detainees and I think that the consultative committee should have a more combative side when it comes to determining the punishment and the way it is executed today and its negative results”. In this quote, the respondent alludes to the actions and the policy recommendations that should emanate from the network. The sector feels powerless, a feeling that both social workers and coordinators share.

32The third task of the consultative committee is to offer policy recommendations to the competent authorities. Problems are pointed out in the field, among others through the consultative committee, and passed on to the own authorities on the one hand and to the justice department on the other hand. The recommendations often relate to concrete and practical issues at the local level and concrete answers are expected. This concerns, for example, the availability of premises, the waiting times before a client can be seen in prison, etc. However, many practical problems are also a reflection of more structural problems. For example in the relationship between the justice department and the communities. This concerns, for example, the consequences for the services of the communities in case of trade union actions. The supply of assistance and services is after all dependent on the actors of the justice department. However, structural problems also arise between the different communities. The coordination of the supply of generalist services is not always evident. For example, an adaptation in the way of working when receiving detainees, taking concrete actions, etc., it all requires a lot of debate and time from the many parties involved. Both the social workers and certainly the coordinators are aware of the underlying structural problems. They consider the formulation of advices to the competent authorities to be a very important matter, but they are disappointed in the extent to which the complaints of the field are answered.


33The welfare work in the Brussels prisons has a complex structure and is confronted with difficulties at various levels. What makes the Brussels context special is the coming together of the competences of the various communities in the Brussels prisons. The target group is confined in prison, it is characterized by a multitude of problems and belongs to different language groups. The institutional logic whereby each community develops its own offer with regard to its own target group is therefore not obvious on the field. This makes coordination and collaboration indispensable in the Brussels criminal justice welfare work.

34Despite this institutional and organizational complexity, a lot of progress was made these last few years in the collaboration between the different services. The creation of the network for Brussels services for welfare work and the accompanying consultative committee are examples of this. In addition, the “Strategic Plan for Assistance and Services for detainees intramuros in the Brussels-Capital Region” offers a basis to continue in the right direction. The sector has contributed internally to the realization of that document, which was finalized in 2014. Nevertheless, there are still many areas for improvement in the operation of the network. The network works slowly and has little impact. The social workers expect concrete support from their practice on the basis of information and actions. The consultation structures are currently still used very often to exchange information and as a reporting centre in case of incidents. Problems are signalled via the Consultative Committee to its own authorities and to the actors of justice. It must be said that in the past two years the situation in the Brussels prisons was very difficult, threatening to remain stuck in the signalling phase. It seems to be a pitfall to use the existing consultation structure mainly as a pass-through of problematic situations in need of a solution. However, it is also a unique platform for achieving joint actions and for developing a further vision by all actors.

35Nevertheless, the institutional and organizational context remains an inhibiting factor for the continued growth of this sector. The authorities concerned should therefore take structural measures. For example, simplify the sector at the level of the GGC. Such evolution would already considerably simplify the current consultative structure with its many organizations and accompanying coordinators. In addition, structural collaboration agreements with other policy areas should be implemented in order to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners. In addition, the signing of a single collaboration agreement with the justice department over the borders of the various communities would be a big step in the right direction. This last point was already a recommendation in 2007 [Floré and Snacken, 2007], but has not yet been realized.

36Furthermore, prison as a work environment remains a difficult context. The communities are competent to provide assistance and services for detainees. This means that the actors of the justice department must guarantee the services of the communities in order to be able to develop their offer as much as possible within the prisons. All too often the communities in Brussels are not able to provide for their services because of infrastructural or organizational defects or because of the impossibility of entering the prison to see clients. The enforcing of the social rights of detainees must be seen as a shared responsibility of both the actors of the justice department and the actors of the communities. Only then can one fully benefit from qualitative assistance and services that can fulfil the needs of the detainees involved.

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Liesbeth Naessens, « Welfare work in the Brussels prisons: a puzzle with many pieces », Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 130, mis en ligne le 10 décembre 2018, consulté le 23 janvier 2019. URL :  ; DOI : 10.4000/brussels.2118

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Liesbeth Naessens

As a lecturer and researcher, Liesbeth Naessens is associated with the training department of social work at the Odisee College. She is Master of Social Work and has practical experience within the criminal justice welfare work. Among other things, she is doing research in forensic social work. She is also preparing a PhD at the Master for Social Work of the Antwerp University.

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