New prison doesn't ease pressure on Swiss jail

In certain Champ-Dollon cells five prisoners share a room built for three

Despite the construction of a new prison in Geneva, Champ-Dollon - Switzerland's most overcrowded jail - is still bursting at the seams and problems persist.

This content was published on June 11, 2008

In January Geneva authorities opened La Brenaz, a modern SFr18-million ($17.3 million) prison on land adjacent to Champ-Dollon, designed to help ease the situation at the neighbouring facility.

Overcrowding has become chronic at Champ-Dollon. Built in 1977 for 270 detainees, the prison currently holds 450.

Campaigners say the overcrowding has obvious consequences for detainees' living conditions: poor sanitation and promiscuity. It also affects access to health care and legal counsel and could endanger safety.

They add that under such circumstances it is difficult at Champ-Dollon to segregate the various categories of prisoners, notably by detention regime.

Owing to the number of detainees and lack of work opportunities, most inmates must spend 23 out of 24 hours in their cells.

Last year a group of experts strongly criticised conditions at Champ-Dollon, claiming the facilities were insufficient and the length of investigative custody too long.

The report was commissioned by Geneva's cantonal parliament following a mutiny at the prison in 2006 when 200 inmates threatened to go on hunger strike over alleged police brutality and slow justice.

Damien Scalia, a member of the Swiss Human Rights League (SHRL) prisons committee, criticised the lack of progress on tackling overcrowding and other issues at Champ-Dollon.

"Nothing has changed over the past two and a half years," he told swissinfo. "We were told that La Brenaz would free up some space and there would be fewer than 400 people at Champ-Dollon. But La Brenaz is now full and there are still 450 prisoners at Champ-Dollon."

Ringing alarm bells?

Champ-Dollon's new prison director, Constantin Franziskakis, who started on May 1, is familiar with these recurring problems. He was in charge of the prison from 2000-2001, followed by seven-year stint as head of the Geneva prison service.

"At 350 we were ringing the alarm bells, but today there are 450 and we are less alarmist than eight years ago; but that doesn't mean the situation is no less difficult – both for the prisoners and the staff," the phlegmatic 45-year-old told swissinfo.

"The reality is we have a prison with 450-500 detainees – you can't do anything about it, you have to get on with the job. You can't complain all the time – it changes nothing."

"I try professionally to attain a high standard of service but it's not possible. But I can live with it if I compare the situation here with other countries."

Yet he felt La Brenaz had brought about "important changes in conditions to the entire prison population".


Franziskakis refused to be drawn on the causes of the overcrowding at Champ-Dollon, however.

"It's not my field of competence. A civil servant shouldn't comment on the causes of prison overcrowding but manage the effects and consequences," he said.

But critics say Geneva is full of contradictions, getting tough with offenders and locking them away, but refusing to face the consequences or to provide sufficient resources.

"The problems are not due to the prison, but a repressive policy in Geneva, where we arrest anyone for anything, the length of investigations and the routine use of pre-trial detention – the main reason for admittance to Champ-Dollon," said Scalia. "We find people in prison for minor offences who shouldn't be there."

"The penal policy has to change and detention is not the sole sanction. We have to introduce alternatives, like community service or electronic tagging."

He pointed the finger at Geneva public prosecutor Daniel Zappelli, who was re-elected in April by 60 per cent of local voters, and who has pursued a programme of "zero tolerance", trying to crack down on delinquency and drug dealing.

"We shouldn't talk about prison overcrowding, but the lack of available places of detention," Zappelli told Le Temps newspaper in April.

More space

In this vein, after La Brenaz the authorities are planning to improve and extend prison infrastructure. At the end of June they are due to vote on the SFr70-million "Curabilis" project – a jail for prisoners with psychiatric problems, a new kitchen and additional workshop space. The buildings should be open in 2010-2011 and free up 90 additional places at Champ-Dollon.

But Michel Demierre, a prison officer at Champ-Dollon for the past 27 years, is doubtful new prison space will help solve the overcrowding.

"It's useless; if you build new prison space it just fills up," he explained.

"Although the idea of La Brenaz originally came from good intentions, the facts show that this policy doesn't work. Building new prisons doesn't mean we'll empty others; nature doesn't like empty spaces," added Scalia.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Key facts

There are around 120 detention centres in Switzerland with places for 6,741 inmates.
In 2007 there was a total of 5,715 people under lock and key (-3%).
Women accounted for 6% of the prison population, and teenagers 1%.
On the office's reference day - September 5 - 1,653 people were being held in detention. A further 3,586 were serving time, while 403 were waiting to be expelled from the country. The 73 others were being held for a variety of reasons.
Foreigners represented nearly 80% of those in detention, and more than half of these people were in Switzerland illegally. And foreign citizens accounted for nearly two-thirds of all detainees serving a prison sentence.
Champ-Dollon prison, built in 1977 to hold 270 prisoners, today averages nearly twice as many. In October 2006, more than 500 inmates were crowded into its cells. There are currently 450 detainees (June). Around 60% of people held there are in investigative custody.

End of insertion
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