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

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Liesbeth Naessens, published on December 10, 2018

The demonstrations regarding the setting up of Brussels prisons in Haren, as well as the recent Journées nationales de la prison or the social conflicts seen in correctional institutions throughout the country, have reminded the people in Brussels of the existence of these places in the city, which are inevitably somewhat cut off from the world.

Due to the blockages which they have caused, the social conflicts in the prisons have highlighted the many judicial and extrajudicial stakeholders working behind bars, well beyond prison management. In particular, the welfare needs of prisoners are often complex and difficult to satisfy, as they involve a wide variety of areas such as education, culture, employment, sport, health, well-being, etc. Many organisations endeavour to meet these needs. But as with many matters in Brussels, welfare services for prisoners and their families are within the remit of different levels of authority.

Since federalisation, the different competent authorities (French Community, Flemish Community and Common Community Commission) have developed welfare policies independently of each other. Therefore, there are currently no less than six general welfare services in Brussels prisons, for prisoners and their families. These six services are governed by different regulations, but the services they provide for the target group are similar. Furthermore, they work independently of the Federal Public Service Justice, while sharing the same field of action. In short, viewed from outside, it is a complex puzzle.

This division of welfare for prisoners in Brussels also creates a lack of clarity from inside for social workers and the target group, as well as for stakeholders in the justice system (prison management in particular). This fragmentation makes coordination, collaboration and a shared vision necessary among the welfare services for prisoners. These coordination procedures are the subject of the 130th issue of Brussels Studies. Liesbeth Naessens, lecturer at the higher education institution Odisee and prisoner welfare professional, describes how the stakeholders in the field attempt to manage the complexity of the Brussels institutional situation.

The institutional logic whereby each community must develop a specific service for its own target group is not easy in practice. Harmonisation and collaboration beyond institutional barriers are therefore essential. Progress has been seen in the formalisation of this coordination: network of Brussels prisoner welfare services, coordination committee, strategic plan for assistance and services for detainees intra muros in the Brussels-Capital Region, etc. But the creation of this network is slow and difficult, especially in a context in which “normal” prison operations are often disrupted or restructured. While social workers are expecting concrete support for their practices, often the consultation structures are still limited to the exchange of information and reporting centres. There is a real risk that the existing consultation structure will be used mainly as a platform for individual problematic situations in need of a solution rather than as a means to achieve an overall improvement of the system.

Therefore, a brand new prison will not solve all of the problems faced by prisons in Brussels. More than ever, a true concerted effort in providing support for prisoners and their families is on the agenda.

Liesbeth Naessens, “Welfare work in the Brussels prisons: a puzzle with many pieces”, Brussels Studies [Online], Collection générale, no 130, 10 December 2018. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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