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Penality and Society

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Policing and Surveillance

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Youth Justice studies

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Crime and the City




Digitalisation in Prison 

Description: This research identified the impact of digital technologies to the prison context. The digital platform ‘PrisonCloud’, first introduced in 2014 and now installed in three Belgian prisons allows for in-cell digital communication. This research showed how PrisonCloud affected the lives of both prisoners and prison staff. The multi-method research design consisted of three parts. First, a historical-penological analysis of the debates over the introduction of digital facilities in Belgian prisons, with particular emphasis on the tension between principles of normalisation and less eligibility. Secondly, experiences of, and interactions between, staff and prisoners were studied by an in-depth multi-sided ethnographic study in one digital prison. Thirdly, a comparative study of all prisons of the North Region of Belgium (Flanders), that assessed the social climate in digitalized and non - or less - digitalized prisons.

Outputs: Doctoral thesis, academic articles, conference presentations, communications for a broader public

Relevant publications:

Maes, E., Robberechts, J., Beyens, K., & Robert, L. (2019). PrisonCloud voor gedetineerden. Grenzen aan digitale normalisering? Panopticon, 40(1), 29-45.

Feys, Y. & Robberechts, J. (2017), PrisonCloud, het elektronische dienstenplatform in detentiecontext: de stand van zaken geüpdatet. Handboek politiediensten, 124, 185-224.

Beyens, K. (2015). PrisonCloud. Een ICT platform voor Belgische gevangenissen. Panopticon, 36(2), 122-126.

Coordinator: Prof Kristel Beyens

Researcher: Jana Robberechts

Partners: National Institute of Criminology (NICC), Dr Eric Maes

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek  (FWO)

Duration: 2016-2020  


Prison Officers in Belgium: A mixed method study on Prison Officers’ Views on Their Job 

Description: we aim at gaining a thorough insight in prison officers’ (POs) views on their job. POs’ perceptions of their job are shaped by their occupational culture. Yet, research (Nylander, 2011; Tournel, 2015) has shown variations on the occupational culture in different prisons, regimes, sections and even shifts. A mixed- method research design and extensive fieldwork in different prison settings will allow to map variations in POs’ views on their job. First participant observations and semi-structured interviews with POs will be conducted, to explore and describe in depth how they look at and experience their job, to analyze their view on “a good prison officer” and how this relates to their actual position in the prisons of today, as well as to the Prison Act (2005) and the law (2019) on the Organization of the Penitentiary Services and the Statute of the Penitentiary Staff. Furthermore we want to analyze how POs experience role conflicts in their job, the dirty aspects of their job and how they perform emotional labor. Finally a quantitative survey will allow us to compare POs’ views on their job in all Flemish prisons.

Outputs: Doctoral thesis, academic articles, conference presentations, communications for a broader public

Relevant publications:


Coordinator: Prof Kristel Beyens and An-Sofie Vanhouche

Researcher: Esther Jehaes

Funding: VUB

Duration: 2018 - 2024  


The point of (no) return? An ethnographic study of daily life and forced removal practices in immigration detention centres 

Description: The detention of irregular migrants in lieu of forced removal has become a central feature of European immigration policies. International criminological research has illustrated the hybrid nature of immigration detention: despite being administrative in character, as an instrument of migration control, it embodies punitive elements that give it ‘prison-like’ institutional characteristics. In order to gain insight to its nature and the implications for those involved, ethnographic research in immigration detention centres in Belgium and the Netherlands was conducted. In order to fully understand the everyday life in immigration detention, multiple viewpoints are taken into account as both the perspective of irregular migrants subjected to immigration detention and the perspective of different immigration detention staff members (social workers, security personnel and members of the activity team) are studied.

Outputs: Doctoral thesis, academic articles, conference presentations, communications for a broader public.

Relevant publications:

Breuls, L. (2017). Portraying forced removal as a means for crime control. On immigration policy communication in Belgium. Lo Squaderno: Explorations in Space and Society, 44, 39-42.

Coordinator: Prof Kristel Beyens

Researcher: Lars Breuls

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek  (FWO)

Duration: 2016-2020  


Prison Food 

Description: In recent years, the notion that prison meals can be used as a measure to increase understanding of daily prison life, has inspired a growing interest in the food served in penitentiaries. However, the extant scholarship remains limited to food studies in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries. This study sheds light on food policies, and the associated food narratives, of both staff and prisoners. This qualitative study, based on interviews with 19 staff members and 48 prisoners on their food experiences, was conducted in four Belgian prisons, Tilburg prison in the Netherlands, and Nyborg prison in Denmark. In addition, six months of participant observations were undertaken. The results show that pre-prepared meals can be perceived as part of the prison’s deprivations, but that the introduction of a self-catering system, enabled prisoners to regain autonomy, control, responsibility, and a greater sense of self. Based on these results, prison food narratives were framed within three frameworks: normalisation, prisoners’ identity work, and dynamic security..

Outputs: Doctoral dissertation, scientific contributions, scientific activities, working papers, contribution to vulgarizing publications.

Relevant publications:

Vanhouche, A., Kjaer Minke, L., & Smoyer, A. (2018). Couscous in Tilburg Prison: Food Narratives and the Quality of Life in a Belgian-Dutch Prison. The Prison Service Journal, 238, 3-9

Vanhouche, A., Kjaer Minke, L., Smoyer, A. (2019). Eten in de gevangenis. In A. Zaalberg, Voeding en justitiabelen: van strafelement naar rehabilitatie-instrument (pp.117-134). Den Haag: Cahier Wetenschappelijk onderzoek- en documentatiecentrum Ministerie van Justitie en Veiligheid.

Vanhouche, A. (2015). Acceptance or Refusal of Convenience Food in Present-Day Prison. Appetite, 94, 47-53. 

Coordinator: Kristel Beyens, Peter Scholliers, Linda Kjaer Minke

Researcher: An-Sofie Vanhouche

Partner: University of Southern Denmark

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek  (FWO)

Duration: 2013-2017 


The Meaning of Imprisonment in Later Life 

Description: This research project scrutinised the meanings attached to imprisonment in later life through an ethnographic study of the integration and segregation of older prisoners in two Belgian prisons settings. The study examined, inter alia: what it means to be an ‘older prisoner’; what this means in terms of the criminal profile and different dimensions of age; and how this relates to a quantitative analysis of the entire older adult prisoner population (age 65+) in Belgium. The empirical study further disentangles the well-established, but inadequately substantiated notion of a heterogeneous older adult prisoner population whose experiences are based on different types of age, from their material and social world. Finally, the project considered older prisoners’ inner world and self-transcending context, which becomes translated into strategies of coping with imprisonment and meaning in life.

Outputs: Doctoral dissertation, scientific contributions, scientific activities, working papers, contribution to vulgarizing publications.

Relevant publications:

Humblet, D. (2017). Oudere gedetineerden. In K. Beyens, & S. Snacken (Eds.), Straffen. Een penologisch perspectief (pp. 475-483). Antwerpen: Maklu.

Humblet, D., & Snacken, S. (2016). Human Rights and Imprisonment of Older Adults. In L. Weber, E. Fishwick, & M. Marmo (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Criminology and Human Rights (pp. 546-555). London: Routledge

Humblet, D. (2015). Older Prisoners. ECAN Bulletin, 27, 15-18.

Coordinator: Prof Sonja Snacken

Researcher: Diete Humblet

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek  (FWO)

Duration: 2013-2018 




Policing and Surveillance

“Can I see some ID please?” An explorative research of police decision-making and attitudes on stopping and searching citizens  

Description: This project explores stop and search (S&S) practices in Belgium by observing incidents and interviewing the police officers involved. This research is relevant to the field of police studies in particular, and criminological research in general, for three reasons. First, this research will remedy the blind spot in criminological research on S&S police practices in Belgium, by developing insights into how S&S occurs, gathering data about who is stopped and searched, and its heterogeneity. Secondly, this research will analyse the complexity of officer’s decision-making during S&S situations and identify the elements that influencing officers’ use of discretion. Thirdly, this research will contribute significantly to criminological debates around police legitimacy and procedural justice.

Outputs: PhD disseration and academic publications

Coordinator: Sofie De Kimpe & Jenneke Christiaens 

Researcher: Inès Saudelli

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO)

Duration: January 2017 – December 2020  


AFFECT Impact Assessment of Belgian De-Radicalisation Policies Upon Social Cohesion and Liberties  

Description: This project considers the emergent counterterrorism regime in Belgium; its strategic assumptions, knowledge claims, programs, techniques, and effects. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is one of the consortium partners, focussing specifically on the role of the local police within a wider regime of counterterrorism practices. Through desk studies of key policy documents and literature reviews and a range of ethnographies in local police forces, the project will provide enhanced understanding of how counterterrorism police strategy is actually shaped, the knowledges and assumptions that underpin it, the challenges it raises, and the effect counterterrorism policing has, not only on those subjected to counterterrorism strategies, but also on the police and police culture. As such, the project will contribute to the further development of counterterrorism police practice within a democratic framework.

Outputs: Academic publications and evidence-based, and unbiased impact assessment, taking into account the stakeholders’ views

Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Fabienne Brion (UCL); Prof. Dr. Sofie De Kimpe (administrative promotor) & Dr. Kristof Verfaillie (scientific promotor) (VUB)

Researchers (from CRiS): Dr. Kristof Verfaillie, Estelle Hanard 

Other Parters: ULC, VUB; NICC

Funding: Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO)

Duration: 1/01/2017 - 15/04/2021  



Description: ‘Stop and search’ (S&S) is a worldwide practice carried out by the police to enable officers to stop a person, prevent him or her from pursuing his or her passage (Bowling & Philips, 2007; Bowling & Weber, 2011), and if deemed necessary, proceed with a search. Two types of S&S approaches can be distinguished: the reactive approach and the proactive approach. In the former, the police decide to stop someone for suspicious behaviour, or in suspicious circumstances, in order to uncover evidence of criminal activity, while the latter occurs when the goal is to deter future offences and maintain public order (Murray, 2014). The proactive approach fits well within the current ‘culture of control’ which aims to spot ‘risky’ individuals as soon as possible (van der Leun & van der Woude, 2011). In various European countries S&S has been a source of controversy. It has been argued that S&S principally targets certain population groups, and more specifically youngsters and minority groups through ethnic profiling strategies (Delsol & Shiner, 2006; Sollund, 2006). Consequently, S&S is a rather controversial practice, which can have a negative effect on the public, as well as affect the legitimacy of the police (Bowling & Phillips, 2007; van der Leun et al., 2014; Quinton, 2013). Despite the heated debates that exist around S&S in Europe, cross-country scientific research has seldom been carried out on the practice. Therefore, this research project will deepen and exchange knowledge and understanding of police stops in Europe.

Outputs: Polstops expects to deliver: academic publications; short-term scientific missions; dissemination of findings and participation in international events and seminars; training schools; blogs; and an interactive online map with country specific information on incidents of police stop and search.

Coordinator: Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) Sofie De Kimpe (Chair), Mirko Miceli (Grant Holder Manager); Kristof Verfaillie (Financial Representative and Working Group 4 Co-Leader)

Parters: 23 different countries

Funding: COST Action 17102

Duration: 4 years (2018-2022)



The symbolic crusade of policing drugs. On the legitimacy to criminalize drugs and the self-legitimacy of ‘drug detectives’ 

Description: The issue of what objective reasons there are to justify the criminalization of a certain conduct is a challenging philosophical and criminological question. It is a question that relates to the core of the state because it deals with the limits of state intervention on individual autonomy. Criminalization is seen as a process whereby the government makes certain human conduct censure-worthy and turns some groups or individuals into ‘criminals’. We review the possible legitimation grounds for criminalizing drugs. Furthermore we want to find out if drug detectives are in need of moral justifications to legitimize their power and their profession. Insights on the self-legitimacy of ‘junior power holders’, such as drug detectives, remains underexposed. Which assumptions and beliefs about drugs and the drugs world are present in the mind of drug detectives, and which of these are constitutive for self-legitimacy? Discourse analysis enables us to investigate the connection between the criminalization of drugs on the macro-level and the micro-level of self-legitimacy. The self-legitimacy of drug detectives is an important societal issue because these police officers are the street level guardians of the prohibition discourse on drugs.

Outputs:  PhD disseration 

Coordinator: Tom Decorte (UGent_Promotor) and Sofie De Kimpe (VUB_promotor)

Researcher (from CRiS): Steven Debbaut

Funding: Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)

Duration: 1 February 2019 - 1 February 2021 


Voicing Diversity 

Description: Today, police legitimacy appears to be directly related to diversity in society; in so far as minorities in particular, are more likely to feel represented if the police corps is diverse. This project focuses on the Belgian case and investigates ethnic diversity within a predominantly white police force. We interview officers with a migrant background in order to acquire insight into how they see their role within the organization, and how they approach migrant/minority communities. We plan to organize focus groups with civil society organizations that represent citizens with a migrant background, to discuss how they perceive the role of the police, and especially the role of officers with a similar background to them. This research will elicit greater insight into the ‘lived experiences’ of police officers with a migration background and how their distinctiveness could strengthen police legitimacy. We fully expect the research results to be translated into a number of specific HRM policies via a ‘toolkit’ for police training and education. The toolkit will include innovative teaching methods for teachers and trainers in Belgian police schools and a (short) recruiting video for social media. In addition, we will contribute to developing a broader awareness about the importance of diversity within the Belgian police by organizing an internal police diversity seminar, the publication of a coffee-table book giving voice to diversity. We fully expect the research to produce a number of scientific articles in peer reviewed journals.

Outputs: The research results will be translated into a number of specific HRM policies. For this we will create a ‘toolkit’ for police training and education (including innovative teaching methods) to be used by teachers and trainers of Belgian police schools and a (short) recruiting video for social media. In addition we aim at contributing to create broader awareness about the importance of diversity within the Belgian police by organizing an internal police diversity seminar, the publication of a coffee-table book aiming to voice diversity and publishing at least one scientific article.

Coordinator: Sofie De Kimpe (Administrative promotor),  Lucas Melgaço and Jenneke Christiaens (Scientific promotors)

Researchers (from CRiS): Yana Audrey Demeyere

Partners: PZ Mechelen-Willebroek, Belgian Police diversity network, Open Society Foundation

Funding: Open Society Foundations

Duration: November 2018 – March 2020 




Youth Justice Studies

Criminal or criminal image? Understanding the role of media messages about migration on juveniles’ narratives 

Description: Whilst migration is increasingly problematised and criminalised, concepts with a negative subordinate dominate our political and social debate. Theories (e.g. moral panics), topical reports and recent treaties, indicate the intertwining of these processes and the media. Despite the acknowledgement of this interconnection, existing research lacks an in-depth perspective. Unlike the connection between representation and stereotyping of migrants and public opinion, the creation of self-image, and self-stereotypes of those who are represented, lacks scientific knowledge. This research will provide insight into the personal stories (i.e. narratives) of youngsters and how they are influenced by media-discourses on migration. A combination of participant observation, visual methodologies, in-depth interviews, and focus groups will provide insight in the narratives of youngsters and the possible influence of media messages. By creating visual deliverables, we will influence the social and scientific debate, and the climate of hardened viewpoints towards migration.

Outputs: We aim to communicate our research findings to a broad public. The reproduction of our collected information consists of documentation, images and storytelling produced with and by the participants. By creating powerful (visual) messages substantiated with a scientific background and strong stories, we will be able to stimulate public interest and social action understandable and accessible for different groups in society. A broad public will be reached through different materials such as articles, opinion pieces and short videos by researcher and participants. Research outcomes will be published both in scientific and vulgarizing online journals to reach academics, professionals and policy makers.

Coordinator: An Nuytiens and Jenneke Christiaens (Scientific promotors)

Researchers (from CRiS): Jasmien Bougrine

Funding: VUB

Duration: November 2018 – November 2022 


Inside the asylum procedure for children: researching experiences of young asylum seekers 

Description:In recent years the question of migration became politically dominant. In criminological science a growing interest in the matter is observable in the introduction of new theoretical concepts such as "crimmigration ". Children who migrate seem unable to escape their criminalization. However, according to a children’s rights approach, children who migrate are vulnerable and "at risk” and entitled to special care and guarantees. However, there is a clear tension between this approach which is argued to be “in the best interest of the child,” and the desire, through “asylum interviews” to tease out the veracity to a young asylum seeker claim that they need to be granted protection. It remains unclear how these procedures and rights are experienced by those directly subjected to them. This research project will, on the one hand, render the asylum procedure visible by observing asylum interviews with young asylum seekers, and on the other, we will render their experiences visible, by collaborating with young asylum seekers in Brussels’ OKAN-classes (for young newcomers who do not speak Dutch), and through art based projects. The purpose of this scientific research are twofold. First, we will develop empirical insight into asylum procedures with children (‘s rights, giving us a clearer understanding how social exclusion (or the risk of being excluded) influences participation and experiences. Secondly, we aim to address the methodological, ethical, and theoretical challenges that arise when young asylum seekers voices are heard.

Outputs: Scientific contributions, scientific activities, exhibition.

Relevant publications:


Coordinator: Prof Els Dumortier

Researcher: Marijke Van Buggenhout

Funding: Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek  (FWO)

Duration: 2019 - 2023 




Crime and the City

SLIC (Smart Lighting Concepts)  

Description: This project will reduce the carbon emissions of public lighting by reducing either the amount, or the intensity, of street lighting. The CRiS research group carried out an international literature review concerning the impact of reduced street lighting on crime, fear of crime, and road safety. The findings were used to inform local and regional policy makers when developing recommendations for preparing, installing, and evaluating local lighting reduction projects. The participation of citizens was regarded as a crucial element to the public acceptance of the reductions in public lighting.

Coordinator: Avans University of Applied Sciences

CRiS' role: Literature review  

Researchers (from CRiS): Lucas MELGAçO (Supervisor), Pia Struyf, Els Enhus, Tom Bauwens

Other Parters: University of Portsmouth Higher Education Corporation, Municipality of Etten-Leur, Suffolk County Council, Metropole of Amiens, City of Bruges, West Flanders Intermunicipal Association, IGEMO, Province of West Flanders

Funding: Interreg 2 Seas 2014-2020, European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Province of Noord- Brabant

Duration: 01/01/2018 - 30/06/2021 (CRis' 1/09/2018 – 31/12/2018) 



Producing Urban Legibility: Mobile City Applications and the Local Governance of Minor Offences  

Description: New digital and mobile technologies (re)configure the relations between citizens and the state: they allow local authorities to crowdsource real-time information on the urban environment and enable citizens to file reports and complaints directly to the relevant authorities in a direct, rapid and simple manner. But these new interactions and interfaces are not devoid of social and political implications. On one hand, citizens’ expectations of mobile digital technologies can translate into exaggerated expectations towards public authorities: municipal interventions take more time, and are less predictable, than a Deliveroo take-away. Local authorities, on the other hand, adopt mobile city application with trepidation, fearing an untenable burden, loss of control over municipal priorities, an excess of (irrelevant) information to sift through, and the redistribution of resources towards tech-savvy, well-informed residents at the expense of others.

Through a focus on the governance of minor offences at our partner, the Brussels’ municipality of Schaerbeek, we explore the case of FixMyStreet, a mobile city application where residents report nuisances and incidents to their local authorities. We critically examine the unintended consequences arising with the introduction of such new participatory legibility schemes, both within municipal authorities’ structures and within the wider social and political landscape. Our research will aim to answer two main research questions – First, how are citizens’ relations with local authorities specifically, and with the state more broadly, (re)configured following the introduction of mobile city applications and participatory legibility schemes? And secondly, how can local authorities’ handling of participatory incident reporting by urban residents be reformed to produce better social and material interventions?

In this project we employ a mixed methods approach, combining a quantitative analysis of FixMyStreet reports and subsequent interventions with an in-depth qualitative research of the municipal services at our partner organization, the Brussels’ municipality of Schaerbeek. This research will make both a scientific contribution in the fields of criminology, urban studies and surveillance studies, while developing tangible custom-made solutions to the questions and challenges faced by Brussels’ local authorities when they elicit citizens’ reports on the urban environment through mobile city applications. Our research findings will allow us to produce new working protocols, practical workshops and an online training module to be used in the municipality of Schaerbeek, and then promoted in the wider Brussels region. Together, these will make an innovative, forward-looking contribution to prepare both scholars and practitioners to the growing role of mobile and digital technologies in the governance of everyday life.

Coordinator : VUB

Promoters: Lucas MELGAçO and Kristel Beyens 

Lead Researchers: Lior Volinz and Iris Steenhout

Other Parters: Municipality of Schaerbeek

Funding: Innoviris Prospective Research Project

Duration: 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2024