Non-Belgian prisoners are not sufficiently able to participate in prison activities

In 2018, almost 45% of Belgium’s prison population had a non-Belgian nationality. Despite this high number, little is known about this group. They are often excluded from research, for example, because of language. Flore Croux’s doctoral research from the Educational Sciences department at the VUB and the Special Needs Education department at Ghent University shows that: “Non-Belgian prisoners are highly motivated to participate in prison activities such as work, vocational training, library, education or sports activities, but the prison environment appears to be insufficiently adapted to their needs, for example, in terms of language. To address this, prisoners very often support each other, also known as peer support. Through this peer support, non-Belgian prisoners can overcome the barriers they experience in accessing prison activities and the difficulties during such participation.’

Croux conducted a literature review and interviewed 66 non-Belgian prisoners from six prisons about their experiences and needs in terms of participation. The interviews looked at both positive and negative experiences about prison activities. In the study, non-Belgian prisoners were interviewed in 12 languages (e.g. Albanian, Arabic, English, French, Romanian and Russian). Individuals of 35 nationalities were interviewed (e.g. Albanian, Colombian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Dutch and Romanian).

Who are non-Belgian prisoners?

Data from the national SIDIS Suite database on the prison population shows that in 2018, 55.4% of the prisoners had a Belgian nationality and 44.6% had a non-Belgian nationality. 44.2% of the non-Belgian prisoners had a European nationality, 42.5% an African nationality and 10.5% an Asian nationality. Non-Belgian prisoners are more often staying in pre-trial detention (46.7%) than Belgian prisoners (29.1%). Belgian prisoners are more often convicted (62.9%) compared to non-Belgian prisoners (49.6%).

Non-Belgian prisoners highly motivated

Non-Belgian prisoners take part in prison activities to have more social contact inside and outside the prison, to learn something or to increase their job opportunities after release. Non-Belgian prisoners find easier access to the library, sports activities and the prison yard as herein language plays a less important role. They are less likely to find access to education and vocational training, as well as to work in prison. However, they express their willingness to participate (more often) in such activities. Mainly organisational barriers hinder them to participate, such as the language barrier and a lack of information. Once non-Belgian prisoners do participate, they appreciate the contact they have with the activity providers and the mixed group composition in prison activities.

Croux concludes with some recommendations: “To a large extent, prisons impose how, with whom, when, and what prisoners can participate in. Policy and practice could focus more on creating a positive participation climate. A positive participation climate starts from the strengths, talents and responsibilities of prisoners. In order to realise a positive participation climate, non-Belgian prisoners could be more actively involved in the prison activities offered or more work can be done to provide opportunities for peer support. Furthermore, policy and practice could take the participation needs of non-Belgian prisoners more into account by providing distance learning from the home country or offering prison activities in languages other than Dutch. Such prison activities benefit their reintegration.’

This PhD research is part of the four-year research project “Foreigners Involvement and Participation in Prison? (FIP2). The project is a collaboration between the research group ‘PArticipation and Learning in Detention’ of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Prof. Liesbeth De Donder and Prof. Dorien Brosens) and Ghent University (Prof. Stijn Vandevelde), and is supported by Avans Hogeschool (Dr. Bart Claes).