How is Ms. Schlaegern doing in prison?

Overseer Bachmann spends the day with robbers, thugs and murderers. But he says: "It is important that you feel the occupants"

For many years, pre-trial detention in the canton of Zurich was considered to be the toughest in Switzerland. The Limmattal prison now serves as an experimental laboratory for a gentler regime. Not everyone likes it. Out and about with Overseer Bachmann.

Bruno Bachmann has himself locked up every morning. He locks his cell phone and other personal items, slips into the blue uniform and buckles the belt with the most important work utensils. The 37-year-old is a guard in the Limmattal prison in Dietikon. He spends his working day with robbers, teenage thugs, drug dealers and murderers. And yet he says: "I feel safer in here than outside."

Today the overseer is on duty on the first floor. A narrow corridor with exposed concrete walls and a bright yellow floor. It's a Tuesday in May and his daily duty starts at exactly 7:14 a.m. But, as always, Bachmann is there a little earlier to prepare everything, for example the pills for the medication distribution. One he will have in front of him today is Mr. B. *, the senior in prison who is sitting for a serious traffic offense.

Bachmann knocks on the gray steel door, opens the hatch, looks briefly into the cell and then unlocks the door. "Good morning, Mr. B. You have your medication here." B. has already been waiting behind the door, he wants to chat a little longer, but swallows the pills first.

"What happened to my notebook now?" He wants to know. He loaned it to inmate H., who is being transferred to the airport jail today. "Do you really still want that?" Bachmann asks him with a skeptical look and then says: "I wouldn't even touch it with rubber gloves." Laughter. However, the condition of the sex book does not play a major role for B., after all, these are coveted goods. "The worst thing in here is that there are no women," he says.

«Norway is my role model.
They have low relapse rates
through high level of care. " - Bruno Bachmann, supervisor

Mr B. is one of currently around 350 detainees on remand in the canton of Zurich. They face 100 guards who are not only responsible for ensuring that none of the inmates escapes, but also for ensuring that no information is leaked inwards or outwards. Because in custody there are people who are urgently suspected of an act and who are also at risk of fleeing or blacking out, i.e. who could influence witnesses or coordinate with co-accused. Dealing with detainees on remand is therefore much stricter than with convicted offenders, even though innocent people are also in custody.

For years, the regime in the canton of Zurich was considered to be the toughest in Switzerland: locked 23 hours a day, showered once a week, calls forbidden, and speaking to relatives only through a partition. The uncertainty about the length of imprisonment, the abrupt deprivation of liberty, and the social isolation plunged not a few of those affected into prison psychosis. The way the prisoners were dealt with brought the canton harsh criticism from the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture.

A change of heart

But it took a tragic event to initiate a change of heart. Four years ago, a woman who had previously killed her children in Flaach, killed herself while in custody. The then newly elected Justice Director Jacqueline Fehr promised to turn every stone in the custody and to improve the situation. A lot has happened since then, and the prison in Dietikon has become, to a certain extent, an experimental laboratory for the canton. A crisis intervention department for mentally ailing prisoners was recently opened here, and a more relaxed form of detention is to be tested here soon. And this is where Bruno Bachmann works, who has nothing in common with the image of the grim guard.

He has short, light hair, wears a three-day beard, earrings, tattoos, a jovial guy. His name tag reads “Overseer / Supervisor”. Bachmann says: «Norway is my role model. You have low relapse rates thanks to high levels of care. " He almost sounds like a social worker at times. "It's important to feel the occupants." He tries to see them as people, not as perpetrators. If someone threatens to freak out, "I'll give them a social cigarette one day," he says. That is always better than having him dismantle his cell.

It is 7.30 a.m. and the postponement for walking is imminent. Bachmann unlocks the doors that lead up to the courtyard. A large square, surrounded by gray concrete walls, meat-cheese-colored floor, the sky can only be seen through the holes in a steel grille. Recently there have been devices on one wall that the occupants can use to train. Bachmann walks around the area, looks into every corner, under the ping-pong table, behind the cameras. "The prisoners are creative in getting information." After all, you would have the whole day to think about strategies. And they'd come up with stupid ideas.

Only recently they found a tattoo machine during a cell check, tinkered with the little motor of a CD player, a needle and the ink of a ballpoint pen. Others use bread and orange juice to make alcohol. Such things are immediately confiscated. "Many people are simply infinitely bored," says Bachmann.

At 7:45 a.m. sharp he opens the cell doors on the first floor. The beds must be made, the room tidy. The prisoners stand in front of the door in the corridor and wait for the okay to leave. There is calm on the way to the farm. Bachmann radioed: "The first floor is postponed for a walk." The column starts moving. At the top they will meet the inmates of the fourth floor. The prisoners on the second and third floors walk in the yard next door, which is separated by a wall. Some inmates are not allowed to meet here because they were involved in the same crime together.

Bachmann locks the door again and goes into a little cabin with mirrored windows. He observes the prisoners as they monotonously turn their circles counterclockwise in both squares for an hour. Others lift weights, smoke. There is a small gathering in one yard. There are seldom problems, says Bachmann, but there could be a fight. Then the guards have to intervene. He has a small black box on his strap. "PSS: personal protection transmitter." If he presses the button for a few seconds or pulls the cord, the alarm goes off. "Then we have to run."

Although Overseer Bachmann is a sporty guy with basic knowledge of self-defense, he would have no chance against the beefy criminals. Still, he's not afraid. "There are prisoners here who would stand by me in an emergency," he is convinced. One of them is P .: bald head, angular skull, broad shoulders, soldier with combat experience. P. gets up at 4 a.m. every morning to exercise. His room is always perfectly tidy, if there is any activity, he is punctual to the second. He is always friendly to the guards, does not do any nonsense, he has prison experience. “He doesn't want any unrest in here,” says Bachmann. And the inmates know that too.

House ghost Magdici

"Security through proximity" is what prison director Daniel Bosshart and his deputy Jan Streitberg call it. By this they mean that the personal relationship with the prisoners can defuse situations. No friendly relationship, "but in such a way that you don't let the inmates feel the power imbalance, say please and thank you," explains Bosshart.

Years ago, Streitberg was a guard in the remand prison in Zurich, one of the most uncomfortable buildings in Switzerland. He remembers the strict guards who patrolled the dark corridors with large beard keys and hammered the keys on the cell doors so that it echoed through half the house. Such behavior is no longer required today. And Bosshart feels confirmed by the results: "We have fewer disciplinary orders, and we hardly know the classic mass brawl." Two cases of minor physical violence against fellow prisoners and five cases of threats or insults against employees were recorded statistically.

But the new closeness can also be dangerous. Limmattal Prison gained national fame when a female guard helped a convicted rapist escape and ran away with him. "Frau Magdici is, so to speak, our house ghost, who still haunts people's heads," says Bosshart, who was not a prison director at the time. However, it is precisely this incident that ensures that everyone is particularly vigilant today. "If a supervisor prefers individual inmates, it comes to light immediately," he believes. In addition, the employees are always on a different floor, so that there are no strong bonds with the prisoners. Organizational adjustments have also been made since the Magdici case, so two overseers are always on duty on night duty today. Nevertheless, Bosshart says: "The weak point remains the human being."

The walk in the yard takes exactly an hour, after which it goes back to the cell. It is now time for Bruno Bachmann to sort the mail and give the prisoners fresh bed linen. He is helped by the inmate who has a small label with the letters HD attached next to the cell number, which stands for housekeeping. A coveted job because you can get out of the cell regularly and earn 12 francs a day. Only those who behave well are eligible.

Bachmann briefly blows into his plastic gloves and then slips them on; there is a smell of window cleaning agent in the corridor. "I once had an inmate who deliberately shit the laundry and got it wet in the toilet." It's not always a walk in the park, he says and adds with a grin: "But actually I'm less angry about the inmates than I used to be about my customers." He knocks on a cell door, "Mr. Z., we're coming for your laundry."

«I always ask people: who would you prefer as your neighbors? A prisoner who was treated well or one who was beaten up in prison? " - Daniel Bosshart, prison director

Overseer is a typical job for career changers; former cooks, attendants and bakers work in the Limmattal prison. Before Bachmann took up his job in prison a year and a half ago, he was a branch manager in retail. He likes to deal with people, he says, but security has always been an important issue for him. "You have to stick to the rules in this country." He was in Kosovo as part of the KFOR troops and wanted to go to the police. "As a teenager I had a few problems, debts, it wasn't possible at the time."

He later found out about the supervisor's job. "I believe that I can make a small contribution here to ensure that criminals are better rehabilitated." He tries to be a role model, especially for young people who are housed in their own department in Dietikon, to get them back on track. "Of course it is not that easy, it is often a success if you manage to calm an aggressive offender."

At 11:30 am, it's time for lunch. Two inmates warmed up the menus delivered from the Pöschwies detention center in the kitchen. All other inmates sit in the cell. Bachmann knocks on the door and then opens the hatch, Mr. Z. receives the white tray with the food packed in a metal box. "Would you like some more bread with it?"

His friendly style does not go down well with all supervisors, Bachmann knows that. Older comrades in particular have some problems with “they find that we are too relaxed, that we let the inmates get away with too much”. The relaxed tone does not mean, however, that they are laxer on security issues, "we are awake and attentive". Next cell door, next hatch, next tray: "Here's your Fish-Mac, Mr. R. - no, of course I know, no fish with you."

«This is not a hotel here»

Lunch in the cell should soon be over. "We want the inmates to be able to eat together in a common room in the future," says prison director Bosshart. In addition, from July in Dietikon, prisoners who are not in danger of being darkened will be able to make phone calls and receive visitors without being separated from them by a pane of glass.

Bosshart would also like to extend visiting hours, open the cells longer during the day and allow more courtyard walks. "The point is to avoid liability damage, which is expensive for society," he says. The vast majority of prisoners will be free again at some point. «I always ask people: who would you prefer as your neighbors? A prisoner who was treated well or one who was beaten up in prison? " That doesn't mean that the detainees are being pampered. The loss of freedom deep into the daily structure is an enormous limitation. "This is not a hotel here just because the prisoners have a television in the cell."

The cell doors open at 1 p.m. and the prisoners are allowed to leave their cells for two hours. They stream into the corridor, visit each other in the cell and smoke together, the housekeeping helps his cell neighbor with writing an official letter. There is no unrest. "Boring," says a young inmate. He apologizes to Bachmann for being irritable that morning. "I just can't sleep in here, my cell neighbor always makes a shitty noise at night." Otherwise it's okay here, he's been doing pretty well with most of the guards. That cannot be taken for granted, they no longer wanted him in other institutions because he caused problems. Bachmann says: “We gave him another chance because he promised that he would behave. So far it has worked. "

For Bruno Bachmann, the day ends with the evening report. In the cafeteria on the fourth floor he said to the group: "We had a transfer to the airport prison, a cell change from 109 to 101. Everyone is there, everything is going well." Then Bruno Bachmann fetches his personal belongings from the locker, puts on his street clothes and goes out into freedom.