Prisoners in Switzerland stay behind bars despite coronavirus

In Ticino, one of the regions hardest hit by the coronavirus, inmates can no longer have any visits from family members. Keystone
This content was published on April 15, 2020 - 08:40

France and the United States are among the countries that have decided to release inmates as a measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons. Not so Switzerland where, despite growing tension within the prison population, other approaches are being tested.

Being stuck inside is not easy under the best of circumstances. Just look at all those people eager to go on hikes and do sports outside even though the government has told them to stay at home. For them, abiding by such restrictions is largely a voluntary exercise. Others, like the 7,000 inmates scattered across the prisons of Switzerland, have no choice. Their limited contact with the outside world has been further reduced as the authorities battle to get a grip on the health crisis.

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Social distancing

No visits, paroled absences, or sporting activities. No going to the workshop or the classroom. These are just some of the restrictions that have been introduced in the country’s prisons – with some variations depending on the canton – to safeguard the health of inmates and prison wardens.

"We are trying to avoid physical contact between inmates, maintain social distancing and avoid groupings of more than five people at a time – and in prison that’s easier said than done", said Franz Walter, head of the prison system in canton Fribourg, in an interview with the local newspaper Freiburger NachrichtenExternal link.

In Ticino, one of the regions hardest hit by the coronavirus, inmates can no longer have any visits from family members, reports Stefano Laffranchini, head of prisons in the Italian-speaking canton. "Apart from having a negative effect on their reintegration into society, this deprives them of a whole range of emotional supports and contacts which matter to them at a time like this", he told Swiss-Italian public radio.

Uprising risk

This restriction on privileges could lead to riots, the experts acknowledge. "There are tensions and major problems involved in any kind of imprisonment," admits Denis Froidevaux, head of public security in canton Vaud in western Switzerland.

The country has not witnessed any uprisings and jailbreaks, unlike Latin America, where large numbers were killed and wounded, or neighbouring Italy. Yet, "the potential for violence and uprisings has increased", notes Walter.

Last Friday, 43 inmates at the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva refused to return to their cells after exercise time. This was repeated the next day, requring an intervention by the security forces but it did not result in any injuries.

Opting for isolation

What happens within prison walls mirrors what is going on in society outside, notes Marcel Ruf, warden of the prison at Lenzburg in canton Aargau. "Some are in favour of the steps taken, others think they are overdone. With no work and no visits, the situation inmates find themselves in is clearly not easy – especially for anyone who has a family", he told the newspaper Luzerner ZeitungExternal link.

A prison’s concrete walls and metal gates do little to protect those inside from the coronavirus. The risk of contagion is highest at facilities that are already overcrowded. The Swiss prison has at least 35 known cases of coronavirus, 33 of them involving staff, according to judicial and prison authorities. In the absence of testing, the real number of infected persons could well be higher.

"If an inmate were to show mild symptoms, he would have to remain isolated in his cell. Anyone needing hospital care would be taken out of there," says Laffranchini. People in the high-risk groups - one inmate in ten is over 65 – are isolated too.

Make more room

Although the present health crisis is an exceptional situation, the rights and freedoms of inmates need to be upheld as far as possible, say human rights advocates, who are calling for "unconventional and creative approaches" to ensuring the well-being of inmates and prison staff.

"The inmates have to spend more time in their cells and have less contact with other inmates. It’s double isolation. The freedoms of an inmate are already limited and so any restriction needs to be counterbalanced with compensatory measures," David Mühlemann, who specialises in issues concerning those deprived of their liberty at humanrights.chExternal link, told

To compensate for the loss of visits – "the last little bit of freedom and the only way to have contact with the outside world" – Mühlemann recommends using video conferencing. Exercise time needs to be maintained at all costs, he says. "Social distancing needs to be respected, therefore it is necessary to reduce the prison population."

Should prisoners be released?

The Swiss Criminal Code External link allows for parole for those who have served two-thirds of their sentence, but it often doesn’t happen, according to Mühlemann. "Recourse to these approaches is more than ever necessary,” he says. “I would go further than that. Inmates who have served half their sentence and belong to the at-risk group should be paroled. In prison there are many young people with health problems."

The same appeal is being made by Reform 91External link, an association assisting and advocating for inmates and marginalised individuals, which cites recommendations from the Council of Europe and the World Organisation against Torture.

Jonas Weber, who is a professor of criminal law at Bern University, backs the idea of a general amnesty. The government, he told the Swiss-German magazine WochenzeitungExternal link could let all inmates off the last two months of their sentence.

No breaks 

Although there is not much communication on the matter, some cantons are taking action, notes Mühlemann. There are prisons which have allotted more time for telephone calls and are looking at the possibility of allowing video-conferencing.

At Champ-Dollon in Geneva, which is the most overcrowded prison in Switzerland, plexiglass partititions have been put up in the visiting area to ensure there can still be visits from family members. The number of inmates there recently dropped from 650 to 560 as alternatives to custodial sentences were found for some, notes Mühlemann. These alternatives include house arrest, electronic bracelets and an obligation to report to police.

Some of the cantons have tried more unusual approaches. Bern has sent home 27 inmates who were in an open prison environment or in semi-detention because they belonged to at-risk groups. The Bern authorities have waived custodial sentences for individuals who are serving less than 30 days and are not considered a danger to society.

Following the example of France, Britain, and the US – where prisoners have been released en masse – does not seem to be an option in Switzerland.

Paroling an inmate after he serves half his sentence, just because he belongs to an at-risk group, is not legally feasible, according to Alain Hofer, deputy secretary-general of the Conference of Cantonal Justice and Police Directors, who was quoted in the newspaper 20 MinutenExternal link. Interruption of detention or release due to coronavirus, the group says, represents a measure of last resort.

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