Update: 02.09.2010

Human rights issues in the Swiss penal system

The close relationship between persons in custody and the authorities can give rise to an increased risk for the violation of human rights. The protection of human rights therefore is of central importance to the penal system. Nevertheless, Switzerland does not always abide by the law, in particular in the following fields:

Overcrowded prisons

Since 2006, the number of inmates in Swiss prisons has risen constantly. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) of September 2009, the prisons have reached an occupancy of some 91%. In the French and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland this quota is even higher and lies at 100.1%. According to its director Constantin Franziskakis, the situation is particularly grave in Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva. Designed for but 270 detainees, in May 2010 it housed 607, resulting in solitary cells being inhabited by up to three inmates and other cells being occupied by six instead of three persons.

This unacceptable situation has also attracted the attention of the UN Human Rights Committee which, in his third state report, expressed its concerns about the continuous overcrowding. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), too, referred to the present conditions in Champ-Dollon as intolerable.

Lacking legal means for mistreated prisoners

Unlike Art.1 of the UN Convention Against Torture, the Swiss Civil Code does not include a definition of torture which makes it difficult for prisoners in Switzerland to take legal action against prison staff. Therefore successful lawsuits are rare and only result in minor sentences.

As a consequence, in its 6th report on the situation in Switzerland, the Committee called for Switzerland to include the definition of torture according to the UN Convention in its Civil Code.

In addition, there is only a very small number of information centres and complaints offices for legal problems in the Swiss penal system; it is for this reason that you will find a list of useful addresses on humanrights.ch.

Lack of therapeutic institutions

The Swiss Civil Code aims at providing specialised and safe therapeutic institutions for mentally disordered delinquents by court order. But the rising number of mentally disabled offenders led to a shortage of at least 200 adequate places for therapeutic treatment. As a consequence mentally ill prisoners are mostly placed in normal penal institutions or psychiatric hospitals - neither of them adequate places to provide the necessary care, since the first can not provide enough therapeutic care and the latter lacks the necessary safety precautions.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has been requesting the Swiss authorities to provide adequate institutions since 1991.

Medical guidelines

In their daily routine, doctors in prisons are frequently facing clinical extreme situations such as conflicts between their loyalty towards the patients and the obligation against the administration of the prison, since there do not yet exist standard procedures concerning the rights and obligations of doctors in the penal system. Although some cantons have their own terms, on a national level there exist only the guidelines of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS) which are not legally binding.

Lifelong detention

The Swiss Law on Lifelong Detention entered into force on 1 August 2008 collides with two important articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) - Art.5 and Art.1. An example for the Swiss policy on detention is the case of Skander Vogt who died in prison in April 2010: his original verdict amounted to some 20 months imprisonment but was later changed to lifelong detention since the inmate was considered to constitute a danger to the public. As Skander Vogt could not cope with the situation, he set his mattress on fire and died from carbon monoxide poisoning after the prison personnel’s failure to render assistance.

Detention of foreign nationals preceding repatriation

According to federal law, this group of detainees is usually held separated from the other inmates of a prison. But the practical implementation of the detention measures differ considerably between cantons. During his visit to Switzerland, the CPT criticised the varying conditions in different prisons. In its assessment CPT emphasised that there existed grave differences between the two institutions visited - Granges (Canton of Valais) and Frambois (Canton of Geneva) - with respect to the qualification of the staff and the personal freedom and rights of the inmates. The inadequate infrastructure of some prisons and lacking possibilities to occupy oneself additionally aggravate the difficult situation of the inmates.

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