Update: 18.05.2016

Prison overcrowding in Champ-Dollon: Federal Supreme Court judgements and an alarming medical study

For many years, severe and continued overcrowding has been the norm in the prison of Champ-Dollon in Geneva. On 21 March 2016, the Federal Supreme Court found that detention standards in the biggest prison in Geneva violate Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Supreme Court accepted in part the complaint of a detainee who, for 136 days, had less than four square metres of living space to himself. In February 2014 and October 2015, judges had previously reprimanded the deplorable conditions in which the prisoners were held.

The Federal Supreme Court’s renewed, clear opinion forces Geneva authorities to improve prison conditions and solve the space problem by construction and/or institutional measures.

Sharp rise in suicide attempts

In recent years, Geneva prison doctors registered a sharp rise in the number of suicide attempts in Champ-Dollon. They analysed the incidents recorded in databases using statistical methods. In 2013, for example, prison overcrowding reached a new critical high at 200%. At the same time, the number of attempted suicides by strangulation considerably increased. In 2014, when cell overcrowding had reached 240%, the number of suicide attempts was ten times higher than before 2013.

Hans Wolff, co-author of the study and chief physician of all Geneva prisons, found this sharp rise alarming. Further possible factors for this dramatic development were examined, such as the mix of prisoners, nationalities, age profiles and psychiatric disorders. But Wolff found no changes in any of these factors and thus concluded that the massive overcrowding was likely the main reason for the rise in suicide attempts.

2014 Federal Supreme Court decision

“If prison conditions do not meet European recommendations for prisons in one area, it does not necessarily mean that treatment in the prison falls under the category of inhumane and degrading treatment.” The Geneva state prosecutor said this in August 2013 to win his appeal before the Geneva Supreme Court against several Champ-Dollon inmates who had asked for their immediate release, because they found that their prison conditions were violating Article 3 of the ECHR.

Initially, the Federal Supreme Court ruled that just two recourses were partially valid, since these two cases had other important factors. The Federal Supreme Court assessed how much space the inmates had in their cells as well as how much time each day they had to spend in their cells.

IIn both successful cases of appeal, six inmates sat in a 23 square metre cell for 23 hours a day for three months. The Federal Supreme Court ruled that such detention conditions violate human dignity according to Article 3 of the ECHR and are unacceptable because they contradict the ban on inhuman and degrading treatment.

The biggest Geneva prison has been massively overcrowded for years. In May 2013, 830 inmates were living in a prison that was originally designed for 370 persons. What is particularly remarkable is that 35 percent of the inmates are there pre-trial or in administrative detention, meaning that these inmates either have not committed an offence (undocumented migrants) or they must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

  • Haftbedingungen im Genfer Gefängnis Champ-Dollon
    Federal Supreme Court press release, 26 February 2014 (pdf, 2 pages in German)
  • Haftbedingungen in Champ-Dollon menschenrechtswidrig
    Article in TagesAnzeiger, 26 February 2014 (in German)
  • Les prisons suisses violent-elles les droits de l'homme
    Humanrights.ch interview on private TV channel La Télé Vaud-Fribourg, 26 February 2014 (in French)
  • La prison de Champ-Dollon en proie à une flambée de violence
    Le Courrier, 21. Feb. 2014
  • Curabilis pourrait accueillir des détenus de Champ-Dollon
    Le Courrier, 21. Feb. 2014

Two new judgements in 2015

In late September, Geneva authorities were condemned twice. The Federal Supreme Court accepted an appeal by two prisoners after a Geneva court found that the inmates’ rights had not been violated although they were granted less than 4m2 per person.

In the first inmate’s case, the Federal Supreme Court reached the conclusion that the prison conditions did not meet minimum standards for 328 days. The prisoner had been confined to a 10m2 cell with two other inmates. The Geneva court ruled that the inmate voluntarily abstained from improving his conditions because he declined to work. The Federal Supreme Court, however, ruled that the possibility to leave the cell for work does not fulfil the requirements for prison conditions according to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

The second case is even worse, because prison conditions were violated for 507 days. The Federal Supreme Court decided that short pauses are not enough to make long stays in overcrowded cells tolerable. Both appellants were granted a compensation of CHF 3,000 by the Federal Supreme Court.

  • ATF 1B_239/2015
    Federal Supreme Court decision, 29 September 2015 (in French)
  • ATF 1B_152/2015
    Federal Supreme Court decision, 29 September 2015 (in French)

A further judgement in 2016

On 21 March 2016, the Federal Supreme Court found in yet another case that the conditions in the Champ-Dollon prison contradicted the European Convention of Human Rights. It accepted in part an inmate’s appeal that challenged the gravity of his offences and asked for a reduction of his sentence from four to three years. In addition, he filed an application to shorten his sentence by five-and-a-half months because of improper conditions of imprisonment.

The Federal Supreme Court has now returned the case to the canton of Geneva justice system. A Genevan court will have to rule on this violation on the prisoner’s human rights.

Next steps

These court rulings pave the way for claims for damages by further persons imprisoned under similar circumstances. Should respective appeals continue to be successful this will turn into a serious financial challenge for the canton of Geneva. The possible financial consequences are hoped to create the necessary pressure on the responsible authorities to launch the urgently needed measures to improve the situation in Champ-Dollon.

Is there a possible end to overcrowding?

In 2005, the Geneva League for Human Rights criticised the high occupancy rate of Champ-Dollon, which at the time was at 162%. Since then, the Geneva governments have developed several projects to improve the situation. And according to the Geneva security authorities, prison conditions have improved. The number of people imprisoned in Champ-Dollon has dropped from 900 inmates in 2014 (240%) to 670. Furthermore, the number of regular beds was increased from 380 to 400, and more prisoners may be transferred to other prisons soon. This has resulted in less stress for the inmates. The construction of three additional prisons in 2020 have been planned to provide enough room to assure that Geneva prisons will no longer be regularly overcrowded. According to chief physician Dr. Wolff, the number of attempted suicides has dropped. In 2015, the number dropped from 89 to 34. However, the problem remains unsolved since occupancy of Champ-Dollon is still at 170 percent.

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