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Overcrowded Geneva prison cracks down on violence

Geneva's Champ-Dollon prison has been chronically overcrowded for years Keystone

Management at Geneva’s main prison has reacted to a series of violent altercations between inmates over the past few days, although the reasons for the fights between North African and Albanian prisoners remain unclear.

This content was published on February 26, 2014 - 13:47
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Fighting broke out between the Champ-Dollon prison’s two largest ethnic groups on Sunday, followed by more violence on Monday and Tuesday. Altogether 26 inmates were injured in five separate incidents, along with eight wardens.

The jail’s director, Constantin Franziskakis, said on Tuesday that the incidents were all similar, although he was at a loss as to explain what set them off.

All those involved in the fights were to be punished and locked up in special cells as well as banned from receiving visitors, while the different ethnic groups will eat and exercise at separate times. The cantonal prosecutor’s office has also launched an investigation into the rioting.

Speculation is rife as to what sparked the violence. One warden told Le Matin newspaper that it could have been a minor disagreement between prisoners, but it could have also been inmates settling a score over drug dealing.

Union representatives pointed out that there had been tensions between North Africans and Albanians since late January, but added that ethnic problems were not unusual in prison.

At Champ-Dollon, inmates from the Balkans, eastern Europe and the Caucasus represent nearly 30% of the prison population, while a fifth comes from North Africa and nearly the same number from the rest of that continent. More than half the prisoners are also Muslims.

“Prison life is about living in a community,” said Franziskakis. “Problems aren’t solved by fighting.”

Previously, inmates that caused trouble were moved elsewhere in the prison to avoid further problems. But that has become next to impossible with the chronic overcrowding at the Geneva jail.

Bursting at the seams

There are currently 850 inmates in the prison that was designed to hold 376. An annexe to house 100 prisoners was opened more than two years ago, but has done little to stem the tide of new arrivals as the local authorities cracked down on criminals.

The Federal Court ruled though on Wednesday that the overcrowding was not acceptable, accepting an appeal by an inmate over the fact that six prisoners had been crammed into a cell with a surface of less than four square metres.

The judges said that treatment meted out to the inmates was degrading, especially since European norms call for at least for four square metres per prisoner.

The court pointed out that lack of cell space alone was insufficient for an appeal to be accepted. But it said that because of the overcrowding, prisoners remained in their cells up to 23 hours per day, and had limited access to telephones, work or medical care, and the applicant’s request was deemed reasonable.

The court did not rule on whether the prisoner should receive any form of indemnity or a shorter prison sentence.

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