Switzerland’s prisons have begun launching online stores to sell handmade wooden toys and wicker baskets to clients outside their walls.
The Pöschwies jail in canton Zurich has gone one better, offering trendy shoulder bags and exclusive picnic hampers.
With 430 inmates, Pöschwies is Switzerland’s biggest prison. Like Champ-Dollon in Geneva, it is faced with problems of overcrowding, increasing violence and overworked personnel.
In July, the country’s prison directors warned of potentially explosive situations within their establishments.
As unrest grows, prison heads have demanded more space and more personnel.
But their calls have fallen on deaf ears in Zurich and Geneva, where the cantonal authorities are strapped for cash.
Rather than wait for an answer, the staff at Pöschwies launched their own fundraising scheme. In May 2003, an online shop opened for business, selling objects made by the inmates in the prison workshops.
While Swiss customers can buy “traditional” prison products, such as wooden furniture, toys and small baskets, over the internet, the Zurich jail has even more to offer.
One of the popular lines has been the “Escape Basket”, a limited edition picnic basket. It is designed to help couples make a romantic getaway.
But the most requested item from the online shop has been the “Jail Bag”, a shoulder bag cut and assembled from tarpaulin sheets.
“The Jail Bag alone had earned us SFr25,000 ($19,500) by the end of 2003,” said Karin Eggli, head of the online shop project. Total sales were worth SFr30,000.
Eggli says she is satisfied with the shop’s progress so far.
“At the moment, we have around 35 orders a month,” she told swissinfo. “I am very pleased both with the sales and the response we’ve had.”
The target market is 25 to 40-year-olds who work online.
This group has been made aware of the prison shop through advertisements in a free newspaper. The day the first one was published, around 500,000 people logged on to the website.
Eggli has two goals in mind for the shop. One is to conquer new markets and increase sales.
The other, according to the project leader, is to do away with old prejudices concerning prison articles.
“We aren’t just putting bags together,” she said, “we are making something that is trendy and worth the money.”
Eggli adds that the prisoners are also satisfied with the results, because they feel their work is worthwhile and recognised.
“Welcome to the ‘clink’ shop”, says the banner on the store website’s front page. But beyond that point, humour is forgotten as business takes over.
But the Pöschwies online store is just a side business for the prison workshops.
“We produce articles mostly for regular customers, such as small and medium-sized companies, or institutions like hospitals,” she told swissinfo.
Products such as Jail Bags are only assembled when all other work is completed and inmates are available.
Two other prisons in Switzerland have opened online shops: Lenzburg in canton Aargau and St. Johannsen in canton Bern. Both are selling the traditional prison wares.
Making money is not the main goal. “The online store is more of a calling card, aimed at showing our up-to-date sales approach,” said Lenzburg’s administrator, Bernhard Taeschler.
St Johannsen’s director, Ulrich Luginbühl, believes that direct contact with customers is still more important than an online presence. But he adds that most of the prison’s business is with traders and not private clients.
At the end of day, all three prisons have the same goal in mind: to sell their products to lighten the burden on the taxpayer.
swissinfo, Renat Künzi
Under Swiss law, inmates must work during their detention.
Prisoners earn between SFr20 and SFr30 per day’s work.
Sales of products and services help cover the cost of running the prison.
Three Swiss prisons have online shops: Pöschwies, Lenzburg and St. Johannsen.
So far, earnings have been small.
The best-selling article has been the Pöschwies Jail Bag.