Switzerland, Lenzburg Correctional Facility, early October. The sky above the outskirts of Zurich is overcast, underscoring the slightly oppressive feeling that overtakes us as we stand before the massive, oversized front gate of a maximum security prison – especially since we know that we’ll soon have to enter it.
Or rather, that we’ll be permitted to enter it! Because a tour of Europe’s most advanced correctional facility is something very special. In the run-up to the Perimeter Protection exhibition (16 to 18 January, 2018), a small group of journalists and partners and employees of NürnbergMesse are fortunate enough to participate in a very special trade press field trip.
After the security check – we’re spared the iris scan – we enter a prison complex for what is, for most of us, the first time in our lives. Once inside the Lenzburg Correctional Facility (JVA Lenzburg), the wing for male inmates appears much less daunting: There is historic nineteenth-century architecture and a spacious, beautifully landscaped exercise yard with ping-pong tables and benches where inmates can pass the time. Plus a view over the prison walls of idyllic, hilly surroundings. It could be worse.
A film set that’s not a film set: the harsh reality
Even the interior of the historic prison looks more like a film set than an actual prison for hardened criminals. But the latter is exactly what it is! And when we personally meet prisoners from all corners of the world – thieves, rapists, murderers – it’s a little frightening.
And yet despite their sometimes unspeakable crimes, they’re treated as people in JVA Lenzburg, not as animals – even though the cells measure a mere 7.6 square meters and, according to the Swiss Animal Protection Ordinance, a private citizen isn’t allowed to keep an Alsatian in such a small space. Respectful interactions between inmates, guards, and management is an established principle of which there are constant reminders in the form of printed messages on the walls. In their cells, each man has a bed, a locker, a washbasin, and a toilet. Televisions and hotplates must be rented and paid for by the prisoners themselves. But where does money come from in a prison?
In Switzerland, prisoners are required to work. Every inmate pursues a regular activity: traditional tasks include ironwork and cooking. Even the most dangerous inmates in the maximum security unit who are kept under 24-hour video surveillance are moved daily from their cold, solid-walled stone cells to the equally uncomfortable work cells where they paste labels on letters or attach hooks to hair accessories for retail sale – naturally, without scissors or staplers to minimize the safety risk, and under the constant watch of three JVA guards.
You’ll never get out of here! And nothing will get in!
There have been a few isolated escape attempts in the prison’s history, but despite its historic buildings, JVA Lenzburg is one of Europe’s most advanced correctional facilities when it comes to its security technology. It’s a strong deterrent! Cell phone communication is prohibited throughout the prison. If anyone does happen to bring in a device accidentally (or intentionally), detectors react immediately and report the unwelcome “guest” to the security centre. The staff currently on duty then knows where to find the forbidden object and can respond accordingly.
The latest in drone defence and overhead protection also feature prominently at JVA Lenzburg. A recently retrofitted drone detection system immediately reacts if unmanned aircraft attempt to smuggle drugs, tools for escape, or anything else into or out of JVA. Any objects the size of a tennis ball or larger are detected. This offers very little incentive to break the strict prison rules.
In the end …
The average inmate at the Lenzburg Correctional Facility is male, about 27 years old, serving a multiple-year sentence and, most often … a father. This last statistic gives us food for thought: thoughts about criminal biographies, certainly, but above all about a life of freedom and the fact that we would do anything to keep it.