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Geneva tackles prison overcrowding

Prison director Constantin Franziskakis (right) shows a cell to Mark Müller and Isabel Rochat Keystone

Infamous for being the most overcrowded prison in the country, Champ-Dollon in Geneva has just opened a new annexe with room for 100 more inmates. joined local politicians gathered at the prison to attend the inauguration of the building, which has been welcomed by all parties as a step in the right direction.

Located between two residential villages in the Geneva suburbs, within sight of the French border, Champ Dollon prison is a vast building site. Three cranes tower over the complex, sign of the frenzy of activity which has gripped the place for several months.

The imposing walls topped with barbed wire around the giant complex and the numerous guards who watch the comings and goings of trucks and workers make it clear: expanding a prison while maintaining business as usual is a monumental task.

All the more difficult because daily life in the prison is very tense owing to the chronic overcrowding which has affected the prison since the beginning of the last decade.

Built for 270 inmates, Champ-Dollon is currently housing almost double that number. A year ago the prison reached a lamentable record: 622 inmates were locked up there in extremely crowded conditions.

On this unseasonably cool grey morning in July, the prison opened its doors to Geneva’s political and judicial establishment. Which may explain why, when the 30 or so journalists entered the courtyard to the brand new 100-bed annex, shouts and insults flew from the main building.

Record build

To avoid too much disruption to the precarious calm of the place, the opening ceremony took place in the prison gymnasium.

Head of the Geneva government Mark Müller welcomed the realisation of an exceptional project, noting that it took only 18 months from the decision of the cantonal government to the inauguration of the new building, with a total cost of SFr35 million ($43.68 million).

“This is the result of a project equally necessary for the inmates and the guards who work in extremely difficult conditions,” Müller said.

His colleague Isabel Rochat is head of security and police. “We are relieved because the detention conditions will finally improve. Respect for the person, whatever the crime committed, has too often been flouted in our history,” she said.

In the recent past, the “powder keg” of Champ-Dollon has often hit the headlines. Last year was no exception, with several riots and an attack on five guards in October.

Last week, the Geneva press revealed that four internal inquiries were underway following complaints by the inmates of bad treatment. This explosive situation has repeatedly drawn criticism from human rights organisations.

The director of the prison, Constantin Franziskakis, defends his employees: “An overcrowded prison is a place in which incidents inevitably happen. We are not dealing with an easy population. But the incidents remain isolated.”

New code

In 2008, the anti-torture committee of the Council of Europe criticised the overcrowding at Champ Dollon in a report. Unworthy practices in a canton which is home to the main international institutions defending human rights, Isabel Rochat admits.

“A canton and a country are judged by how they manage their security. Geneva is the cradle of the humanitarian organisations, it should show an example and offer places of detention which respect the most elementary laws.”

So why wait so long to expand the prison? “It has to be acknowledged that we did not fully grasp the rapid increase in the number of inmates. We hoped that the numbers had reached a peak and would go down but that was not the case,” she said.

Since the beginning of the year, a change in the law has somewhat taken the pressure off the director of the prison and his staff of almost 300. The entry into force of a new penal procedure code has put an end to the systematic use of preventative detention for minor crimes.

Many lawyers had been complaining in Geneva about the over-use of provisional detention. Since the beginning of the year, the prison population has fallen by 25 per cent.

But not all the problems have been solved and the prison still has just 370 places for 456 registered inmates.

The minister in charge of security is less than optimistic about the outlook for Geneva.

“The security situation is very critical in Geneva. Our canton has become a sort of supermarket without a checkout. We are unfortunately not moving towards a decrease in the number of inmates.”

National stakes

Another building destined to house 92 inmates suffering from psychiatric problems is scheduled to be completed in 2013. The new annex of Brenaz prison will accommodate 150 new inmates between now and 2015.

As for the possibility of building a new prison at Champ-Dollon, it depends on the evolution of the number of inmates in the coming months. “We want to move faster,” Müller said.

The Swiss Human Rights League has long denounced the competitive expansion of the prison system, claiming that the places created in recent years only have the effect “of multiplying the incarceration of the population and reinforcing the abuse of preventative detention, driven by an unacceptable penal populism”.

The burning question of prison overcrowding may be symbolised above all by Champ-Dollon but the problem goes beyond canton Geneva. The rate of occupation of Swiss prisons reached 92.5 per cent on average in September 2010, date of the last survey by the Federal Statistics Office.

With an occupation rate of 105 per cent, the prisons in French- and Italian-speaking regions are particularly problematic.

“The prisons are full all over Switzerland,” Rochet said. “In the same way that the number of police is a Swiss problem, prison overcrowding is also a national problem. We have to solve it together.”

Opened in 1977, Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison has the main function of detaining prisoners before trial and sentencing.

Since the beginning of the last decade, the prison has seen a constant increase in numbers of inmates, leading to the development of a chronic problem of overcrowding. Over the year 2010, a record total of 3,075 inmates were accommodated at Champ-Dollon. The site currently houses 456 inmates, although it was built for 270.

Inmates: 115 different nationalities were represented in the prison in 2010 with just 7.2% Swiss. Most of the inmates did not have a known address in Switzerland. One in ten of the total spent just one night in the prison; 36% stayed eight nights or more.

Expansion: The opening of Cento Rapido, an annexe to the main prison will provide 100 more places from August 15, as well as workshops. By 2013 the Curabilis prison for dangerous inmates and those with psychiatric problems will offer 92 more places. The construction of a new hospital unit will free up 40 more places.

There are 114 detention establishments in Switzerland. Seven of them are for prisoners serving sentences. They offer 6,683 places in total.

On September  2009 (last date of reference of the Federal Statistics Office), 6084 people were imprisoned in Switzerland, including 374 women (7% of the total).

4,272, or 70 % of prisoners were foreigners.

31% were in preventative detention and 59% serving sentences. 7% were subject to constraint measures and 3% were incarcerated for other reasons. The occupancy rate was 91%, five per cent more than the previous year.

The occupancy rate was particularly high in French-speaking Switzerland (105%) where certain prisons are overcrowded.

The number of inmates per 100,000 population has increased. It has gone from 76 to 80 per 100,000.

(Translated from French by Clare O’Dea)

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