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Unrest grows in crowded Swiss jails

The Champ-Dollon prison is at the heart of the controversy

(Keystone)

The justice ministry is warning of a possible crisis in crowded Swiss jails, saying there is no relief in sight.

It comes after prison guards in Geneva threatened to work to rule unless the prison authorities do something about overcrowding.

“This is a problem and we don’t see any relief coming,” justice ministry spokeswoman Sabine Zaugg told swissinfo.

“Maybe we can call it a crisis. But we can also say it is normal for prison populations to go up and then go down again in a cyclical way,” Zaugg said.

The ministry said overcrowding is known to be a problem in cantons Geneva, Bern and Zurich, among others.

In Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison, the union representing prison guards is calling for a building expansion, overtime compensation, and more guards. The prison was built for 270 inmates and currently houses 461.

Tension running high

Canton Geneva prison officers union representative Gerald Bolliger warned of “unbearable working conditions”, in a statement released on Wednesday.

He said tension was running high among prisoners, with up to seven inmates in cells originally designed for four people.

To keep the peace, each guard had clocked up between 50 and 200 hours of overtime, he added.

Micheline Spoerri, the head of canton Geneva’s justice and police department, will meet union representatives on July 30.

While she acknowledged there were legitimate grievances, she told swissinfo she did not understand union members’ threat to withdraw their services.

Spoerri said she had been in "constant contact" with the guards at Champ-Dollon, and many of their concerns were being addressed.

Specifically she pointed to canton Geneva’s newly opened Favra detention centre, which took 21 prisoners from Champ-Dollon last week, and said 20 more prisoners could be sent, at least temporarily, to Croisée prison in canton Vaud.

Security risk

Spoerri also said a bill proposing an extension of Champ-Dollon would be debated in the cantonal parliament next month, and "for 2005, I will again call for parliamentary approval of additional prison guards”.

The guards say if nothing changes, they will cut back on inmates’ daily activities.

Bolliger said activities were harder to supervise when the number of inmates was so high, and posed a greater security risk.

But observers warn that violence could result if activities are curtailed.

“It is a fact that, if you have more activities, you have a quieter prison,” said Bern University professor Christoph Fricker, who has studied conditions in several Swiss prisons.

“If you have too many inmates, they end up in the cell for most of the day and they are not happy about that.”

Foreign population

The problem of overcrowding has more than one explanation.

Fricker supports the view that the prison population swells with an influx of foreign populations.

Federal statistics confirm that about 60 per cent of inmates are foreigners.

Sabine Zaugg said the closure of older prisons between 2000 and 2002 had also contributed to the problem.

swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen

Key facts

Geneva’s Champ-Dollon prison was built for 270 inmates and currently houses 461.
The prison union says seven inmates are sharing cells designed to hold four.
It is calling for the building to be extended, for prison guards’ overtime to be compensated, and for more guards.
A number of older Swiss prisons were closed down between 2000 and 2002.

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