Belgium calls up army to cover prison guard strike over budget cuts

  • World
  • Monday, 09 May 2016

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium has called up the military to assist in prisons where guards have been on strike for two weeks over what they say is dangerously low staffing due to budget cuts.

Six platoons of 30 soldiers have been mobilised to help police and the Red Cross who are currently at work in prisons in Brussels and the French-speaking region of Wallonia, where prison officers are striking.

Both the military and police are already stretched, with increased patrols particularly in Brussels, where suicide bombers killed 32 people at the airport and on the metro on March 22.

The justice ministry said that some of the mobilised soldiers had been deployed at the three largest prisons - two in Brussels and one near the city of Liege.

Justice Minister Koen Geens proposed on Friday recruiting 405 new prison officers this year to bring the total to some 7,000, the level at the end of 2015, and offering some extra pay for more flexible working practices.

Guards in all prisons rejected the proposal, union leaders said on Monday, adding the promised recruitment was inadequate and would still leave the number of officers down from two years ago.

Conditions in the prisons have worsened and some inmates are not receiving certain basic rights such as showers, three meals a day, family visits and access to lawyers.

Unions have said low staffing has limited access to courses and other activities that can help reduce violence and prevent prisoners from reoffending.

"There's been a lack of investment in the buildings, the infrastructure, in training, there's overcrowding. Things haven't been right for 10 years if not more," said union federal secretary Michel Jacobs before a new meeting with the minister.

(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.)

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