Switzerland prison and probation services

The Swiss correctional system: the complex challenge of harmonisation

// Interview: Ronald Gramigna

Head of the Execution of Sentences and Measures Unit, Federal Office of Justice, Switzerland 

JT: What are the main principles framing the execution of sentences and measures in Switzerland?

RG: The principle of individualisation is one of them but there are also the principles of communication, coordination and harmonisation. I think the goal – and the challenge in Switzerland – is how we can unite those principles without slipping into an imbalance or becoming too extreme in relation to one. We now face a challenge concerning harmonisation and coordination between the cantons, and between them and the confederation.

We are guided by important ethical values which are very significant in the field of prison and probation services. It’s a very sensitive topic because we are talking about taking freedom away from people; we put them in cells and then we have the responsibility to treat them as best we can. In Switzerland, a prison sentence speaks for itself and we don’t have the idea of punishment inside our prisons. And then we have the principle of equivalence which means that the conditions in prison – especially regarding medical treatment but also other services – should be similar or equivalent to those provided in the community.

A total standardisation would probably hinder and limit the development of creativity and other values in the system and it would also limit the relationship between prisoners and staff.

JT: The 1st Swiss Forum on Prisons and Probation was held in November 2018. The event unfolded around the question ‘Standards: What Purpose?’. Moreover, its programme stated that standards exist to ensure and improve quality, especially regarding planning, action and process control while at the same time, in the execution of criminal sanctions, they also serve as a guideline ensuring that people under custody or serving community sanctions receive the same treatment. Often, however, standards tend to be formulated in abstract terms or are not sufficiently oriented to practice. In Switzerland, while standards already exist in many areas of the execution of criminal sanctions, in other areas they must be developed or strengthened. Hence, the Forum has urged reflection on this topic.
In your opinion, what is standardisation in the field of the execution of penal sanctions and what benefits and challenges does it entail?

RG: Standardisation is what gives a kind of framework in which we can develop and define the core values about the treatment of prisoners and the training of prison staff more concretely. Standardisation also provides a framework for defining the characteristics that prison staff should have, including their academic level and their training.
Because of our federal system, we have a certain limitation as regards the extent of standardisation we can achieve because we can’t prescribe the cantons strict ways of acting. Furthermore, a total standardisation would probably hinder and limit the development of creativity and other values in the system; it would also limit the relationship between prisoners and staff which arises from the specificities and differences of the country’s correctional institutions. When you have small institutions with a good environment then you have the possibility to build up creative projects with the inmates and find tailor-made solutions.
Another challenge concerns the extent of the collaboration between the cantons, given their budgetary autonomy. As for the benefits of standardisation, the major one is the possibility to make comparisons between institutions, their values, and push for their quality improvement. Now, all the cantons are working on implementing standards in the field of preventive pretrial detention, following a recommendation of the national committee for the prevention of torture. There are certain areas where it’s definitely not recommended that the differences between cantons or institutions are too big.

JT: Given the sovereignty of cantons in the field of criminal justice, prison and probation services, what is the role of the Federal State? And, what is the mission of the Execution of Sentences and Measures Unit?

RG: If we consider Switzerland’s history, the Confederation was created after the cantons, so, most of the institutions and matters are organised at the cantonal level.

At the Federal level, we are a partner that helps the Cantons to build upon and fulfil their mission, including with financial attributions. Hence, in prison and probation matters, it is my Unit’s task to help the cantons develop and improve their correctional systems and build up some quality markers. We hold a supervision function, not properly invested with political power.

I know the system very well, in fact, I used to be a prison governor myself. I have frontline and operational experience and that’s one of the reasons why I believe we have a high acceptance. I think we are appreciated by the cantons and we have some natural authority as a collaborative agency. We are an institution of experts that is open and whose perspective of the correctional system is broad. As a federal agency, we are able to look at things from another perspective and help the cantons deal with any crises. Responsibility is spread over more shoulders which makes our system very stable.

Our mission is both on an operational and strategic level. Besides, I represent the Confederation at the foundation board of the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Prison and Probation to which our office contributes financially as the Cantons do.


JT: What challenges are the Swiss corrections facing?

RG: The main challenge is surely overcrowding, which occurs mainly in the French-speaking part. This also leads us to the issue of collaboration and transfer between the cantons.

The second challenge is the mentally ill people and their treatment in the prison system, namely those with more severe pathologies who require strong medical intervention and there we have a limitation because we don’t have enough places. We are very creative, so I think we’re doing well but in the short-term, it’s really going to be an issue.

I know that for many countries the recruitment of prison staff is quite a challenge, but fortunately, that isn’t an issue in Switzerland because we pay our professionals quite well. That is one of the core values, we believe we need the best people there.


Ronald Gramigna graduated in Clinical Psychology, Psychopathology and Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. He worked for several years as a clinical psychologist responsible for the treatment of drug-addict and mentally ill patients. He developed his thesis on methadone programmes and got his PhD in 1996. Later, he worked as a forensic psychologist, treating dangerous offenders. He became director of a prison in 2007. Until 2015 he was also a member of a board for the risk assessment of dangerous offenders. He is Head of the Execution of Sentences and Measures Unit at the Swiss Federal Office of Justice since 2015.

All the cantons have committed to common principles as to how the penal system in Switzerland should be configured. This is a sound starting point.



The key issue in years to come will be continuing the development of synergies on a national level, over and above linguistic or concordat borders (...)

Like / Share:
More stories
The Hidden Epidemic: Organised Crime in Prisons and the Threat to Societal Safety