Guest post by Steven De Ridder, PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels), Criminology Department, Research Group Crime & Society (CRiS)

A Belgian prison in a Dutch land

Belgian prisons have been overcrowded since the late 1980s. According to the most recent statistics from 2013, there were 11 732 people imprisoned in a system with the capacity to hold only 9 925, amounting to an overcrowding rate of 26.8%. In a bid to address this problem the Belgian government signed a Treaty with the Dutch Government in October 2009 to contract out a prison in Tilburg. Transfers began in February 2010.  Since this time, Belgian prisoners, whose consent is not required, have  served their time in Holland, overseen by Dutch prison staff, under a (mostly) Belgian prison regime, before obtaining early release (see Beyens, Boone et al 2013).

Both Dutch and Belgian flags wave at the entrance of the prison of Tilburg Source: VTM NIEUWS
‘Foreignness’ and prisons

Not just anyone is sent to Tilburg. Instead, it has become the preferred destination for Belgian's foreign national prisoners, who comprise over 40% of the prison population.  This trend began almost as soon as the contract was signed, with the former Minister of Justice, Stefaan De Clerck, announcing in the Senate, on 30 November 2010, that the Walloon (French speaking) region of Belgium was almost exclusively transferring to Tilburg foreign-national prisoners with irregular immigration status. No reason was given and no further questions were raised apart from those related to the financial implications of the transfers.

These days, irregular migrants make up the majority of the prison population in Tilburg, a circumstance that raises a number of questions about which we only have a few answers. Why are they targeted for transfer? How does the transfer effect their experience of incarceration?  Is transfer preferable to life in an over-crowded prison?

‘Illegality’ and the Tilburg prison

According to the Belgian prison Act of 2005 a prison sentence aims at “the rehabilitation of the offender and the preparation of his reintegration into society”. Officially, immigration status does not preclude access to reintegration and rehabilitation activities in Belgium. In practice, however, irregular migrants are often unable to participate due to language barriers and waiting lists (Hellemans, Aertsen & Goethals 2008; Snacken & Tournel 2009). Such matters are compounded in Tilburg where foreign prisoners are excluded from Dutch language courses and skills training. They also earn less money through prison labour, than they would in a Belgian prison, and, due to distance, have greater difficulties in maintaining contact with friends and family members.

Notwithstanding the official aims of the 'Tilburg Treaty', in other words, the Tilburg regime differs from that in Belgium.  Though convicted in Belgium, those who are transfered experience the regime for irregular migrants convicted under Dutch Criminal Law (Boone & Kox 2012).

Concluding remarks

The situation of irregular migrants in the prison of Tilburg reveals the importance of prisoners’ residence status within a penal context. With their limited access to reintegration activities, for convicted irregular migrants life in Tilburg resembles that in an administrative detention centre, suggesting their stay in prison serves more as an instrument of migration control than of crime control. Several scholars have noticed this  shift in the nature of and relation between migration and crime control (see Miller 2005; Stumpf 2006; Bosworth & Guild 2008; Chacón 2009; Dowling & Inda 2013). Furthermore, with an early release procedure in view of expulsion and Migration Administration officers identifying irregular migrants in prison in view of expulsion, foreigners have become a target group within the criminal justice system (Fekete & Webber 2010).

In order to understand the impact of ‘illegality’ within prison walls, my research focuses on the implementation of migration law in Belgian prisons. In my doctoral research I am particularly interested in how irregular migrants in prison cope with the exclusionary legal framework to which they are subjected and how this affects their ‘prison time’, their possibilities to prepare for (early) release and their future life perspectives.

Please click here for papers on the rehabilitation of irregular migrants convicted for a criminal offence in Belgium, England & Wales, Greece and the Netherlands.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

De Ridder S (2013) Tilburg: A Belgian Prison Across the Border. Available at:http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/tilburg/ (accessed [date]).