Pre-trial detention

Yard of the Limmattal prison.

Suspects are remanded to prevent them from fleeing, becoming a threat or negatively influencing the criminal proceedings. Even though the presumption of innocence applies, they must yield to a restrictive form of detention. We are working on improving the situation of prisoners on remand.

Only as restrictive as absolutely necessary

If there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a felony, the coercive measures court can order pre-trial detention. That way, prosecution authorities can prevent the suspect from fleeing, breaking the law again, talking to other involved parties or manipulating evidence. In order for that to work, the conditions in pre-trial detention need to be comparatively restrictive – despite the presumption of innocence.

An unoccupied double cell with a bunk bed at the Pfäffikon Prison
Bunk beds: an unoccupied double cell at the Pfäffikon Prison. Image source: Dominic Büttner/JuWe

In the last decades, there have not been any significant changes regarding remand, which is why Government Councillor Jacqueline Fehr launched several initial projects after taking office in 2015. Their aim is to protect the purpose of pre-trial detention while at the same time ensuring that the affected inmates are not subject to any unnecessary restrictions. The Office for the Execution of Penal Sentences and Justice has scrutinized the prison conditions, identified areas in which actions must be taken, and taken first steps to improve the situation of prisoners in remand.

Roland Zurkirchen, Direktor Untersuchungsgefängnisse Zürich

«The conditions in pre-trial detention can not be changed overnight. We must take into consideration the conditions at the individual prisons and the specifications of our partners, e.g. the public prosecutor’s offices. But we are improving the situation step by step. The important thing is that we’re working toward a common goal.»

Roland Zurkirchen, head of the Zurich remand centres

Four areas of activity

In a study titled «Optimierung der Untersuchungshaft im Kanton Zürich» («Optimizing pre-trial detention in the Canton of Zurich»), the Office for the Execution of Penal Sentences and Justice looked at four different aspects of detention conditions.

  1. Social connections
  2. Work, employment, and training
  3. Training and continuing education for the staff
  4. Detention period

The study shows that improvements are possible in these areas. Some of the recommendations have already been implemented.

Use the accordion controls to toggle the visibility of each panel (below the controls).

Prisoners in remand should be able to receive visitors. Even in the case of possible collusion, a restricted selection of visitors should still be allowed. Both the courts and the person or authority in charge of the proceedings are obligated to find individual and, taking into account the reason of incarceration, appropriate solutions for the inmates.

This includes phone calls – every case must be assessed individually. In general, monitoring visits is to be favoured over prohibiting them.

Prisoners in remand are also generally not to be isolated from the other inmates. That would violate international regulations. Exceptions can only be made if there is a risk of evidence being suppressed or if the prisoner poses a serious safety risk for their fellow inmates. In this case, too, it is important to assess every case individually and to regard the principle of proportionality. In practice, however, it is not possible to determine for each inmate individually who they are allowed to be in contact with. A certain degree of generalization is unavoidable in this domain.

So, the prisons in Zurich must find a happy medium: The basic rights of the prisoners must be respected as much as possible. At the same time, the procedures and structures of everyday life at the penitentiary must not be disrupted or inhibited.

Inmates in Zurich’s prisons should have the opportunity to spend a large portion of the day engaging in sensible, useful activities outside of their cells, such as education, exercise, or work. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture demands that convicted offenders as well as prisoners awaiting trial
have different activities available to them for eight hours a day.
Most prisons in Switzerland still seem far away from that objective.

Whether or not apprenticeships and other forms of vocational training reduce the probability of an inmate re-offending is disputed. It is clearer, however, when it comes to basic education. It is meant for prisoners with a low level of education and mainly teaches them abilities such as reading, writing and basic maths, giving the prisoners better chances of avoiding criminal behaviour in the future and finding it easier to integrate into society once they are released. Law enforcement studies on the matter show that the probability of an inmate relapsing can be reduced by up to 20 percent with these educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, there are no such studies for prisoners on remand. And in Switzerland, these educational opportunities are almost solely available to convicted prisoners. Therefore, our goal must be to conduct a scientifically monitored trial in which we offer as many inmates in Zurich’s remand centres as possible these basic educational opportunities.

In Switzerland, all prison staff is trained by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Prison and Probation SCEPP in Fribourg. They are trained to be all-rounders, with the objective of enabling graduates to work in all different types of correctional facilities.

However, the European Prison Rules state that prison staff is to be chosen and trained in a way that fully respects the special situation and needs of prisoners remanded in custody.

It is true that remand is a setting with specific prerequisites that call for specialized knowledge and abilities. These prerequisites include the presumption of innocence, an increased risk of suicide, signs of withdrawal in the case of substance abuse, or the so-called prison shock.

In order to be able to properly address and handle these issues and situations, remand centre staff need proper training. The cantons should therefore consider establishing topical continuing education programmes, to be organized cantonally or centrally by SCEPP.

Prisoners in pre-trial detention have a right to be released from prison or presented before a judge within a reasonable period of time. This right is supported by various international resolutions and, on a national level, the principle of expeditiousness and the prohibition of excess detention.

However, there are several problems. For example, the point in time that is chosen for the calculation of excess detention is the moment in which the full duration of the expected incarceration expires. But in Switzerland, conditional – and therefore early – release (parole) is standard. Which is why several demands have been made that Switzerland introduce a maximum possible duration for pre-trial detention, as is the case in Austria.

This would lead to investigations in a case being arranged and organized in such a way that they would adapt to the suspect’s right to freedom, rather than the other way around. Therefore, the legislative authorities, taking into account all the advantages and disadvantages, should seriously consider this measure.

Whether and how improved prison conditions influence the prisoners in remand has yet to be examined in substantiated and methodically sound studies. A scientifically supervised model experiment in pre-trial prisons in the Cantons of Zurich and Berne is planned. The model experiment was approved by the Zurich government council on 8.12.2022.

First measures taken

The Office for the Execution of Penal Sentences and Justice has compiled international findings on prison conditions in a scientific paper. The Department of Justice and Home Affairs is already taking the insights into account.

For example, inmates at the Zurich pre-trial prisons can move around freely within their block for an average of seven hours a day. There’s access to education, work, and exercise. And, within the scope of available resources, support from social workers and other support staff was reinforced. Zurich’s pre-trial prisons now also offer more options regarding communication and social exchange. All these measures were put into practise to prevent and counteract the harmful side effects of pre-trial detention.

«Caring for prisoners in remand is often crisis intervention work. Pre-trial detention is necessary, but we must try to cushion negative side effects such as damage to the relationship with the family, losing a job, or social isolation as much as possible.»

Government Councillor Jacqueline Fehr

Additionally, the Office for the Execution of Penal Sentences and Justice has opened a new ward at the Limmattal penitentiary specifically for inmates in acute psychological crises. The crisis intervention ward (KIA) has room for nine inmates.

The common room with tables and benches at the Limmattal prison
The common room with tables and benches at the Limmattal prison Image source: JuWe/Doris Signer

Compared to normal remand, this ward has more care personnel (an equivalent of four full-time jobs for nursing staff and one full-time job for prison psychiatrists) as well as group activities, consultations, visits, and possibilities regarding work, education and free time.

By making psychiatric care and support available to prisoners in acute psychological crises, the Canton of Zurich has closed the gap in the previous range of care services for inmates in remand.


Justizvollzug & Wiedereingliederung


Hohlstrasse 552
8090 Zürich
Route (Google)


+41 43 258 34 00



Direktion der Justiz und des Innern - Medienstelle des Generalsekretariats

Neumühlequai 10
8090 Zürich
Route (Google)
+41 43 259 25 50