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Brussels: Belgium will grant "extended prison leave" to certain inmates to curb dire overcrowding, according to an official memo obtained by AFP on Thursday.

Recent official figures show there are 12,300 inmates in 38 Belgian prisons which have an "operational capacity of 10,743."

According to the document dated March 6, the Directorate General of Prisons asked prison chiefs to grant leave every other month to certain convicts, as the overcrowding is "currently taking on dramatic proportions."

The measure, "effective immediately", does not concern convicts who are serving a prison sentence of 10 years or more.

It also excludes prisoners convicted of terrorism and sex offenders imprisoned for "indecent acts against minors and adults."

The directorate general said that despite the addition of emergency beds, "the number of inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floor is increasing daily... a situation that is difficult to sustain from a humanitarian point of view, both for the prisoners and the prison staff."

On Thursday, lawyers in bar associations across Belgium criticised the "increase in the number of laws providing for ever more severe prison sentences."

Last year the International Prison Observatory (OIP) warned of growing prisoner numbers when a prison reform in Belgium came into force in September.

The law requires all prisoners sentenced to between six months and two years to be incarcerated for at least one third of their sentence.

Previously, the majority of those offenders would be "automatically" fitted with an electronic tag and granted provisional release after a few months.

Since the new law came into force, the number of prisoners in Belgium has increased by 800.

In recent days, staff at certain prisons have refused to accept new inmates.

Prison guard unions around the country called for a nationwide strike on March 14-15 in a bid to highlight the deterioration of their working conditions.