‘We are fully booked’: Over 800 Zurich residents volunteer to try out new jail

A new prison in the west of Zurich has been inundated with responses from people wanting to stay the night.

Bunk beds are seen in a prison cell. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels
Bunk beds are seen in a prison cell. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

As we wrote recently, the new Zurich West prison has put out a call for local volunteers to spend several nights in the 241-place jail to test it out before it accepts actual prisoners.

So far, 832 people who presumably have nothing more pressing to do have volunteered to be imprisoned for several days without access to the internet or phones. Because, why not?

The registration closed on Sunday, February 13th. 

READ MORE: New Zurich jail calls for volunteers to serve time

“You could say we are fully booked” a spokesperson for the prison told Swiss media

The dress rehearsal, as it were, will take place between March 24th and 27th in conditions that will be as close as possible to reality. 

This means participants must hand in their mobile phones and other devices at the entrance.

Different dietary requirements can be catered to, although only vegetarian, Halal and non-vegetarian options are on offer. No last meals will be served. 

On the other hand, the body search will be carried out only on those who consent.

In addition, a keyword will be agreed upon, with which the fake convicts will be able to signal that they have had enough of isolation.

The selection process of candidates is about to begin, though given that four times as many people have applied as there are open spots “there probably won’t be room for everyone,” in the new prison, said a spokesperson the Department of Execution of Sentences and Reinstatement.

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‘There are only winners in this situation’

Prison officials have extolled the virtues of the program, saying people can get a real idea of how it feels to be in prison – without having to commit a crime. 

“There are only winners in this test operation. As a participant, you can experience in a safe environment how it might feel for a real arrested person to suddenly be locked up.” 

“Make your own comparison between fiction from various series and reality in Switzerland.”


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EXPLAINED: Why free public transport is illegal in Zurich

Any law or referendum which has the effect of making public transport free is illegal in Zurich. Here's why.

EXPLAINED: Why free public transport is illegal in Zurich

From allowing local residents to vote on whether people can become citizens (rejected), or whether to amend the constitution to give people a day off on August 1st, the Swiss like to vote on anything and everything.

Which is perhaps why it is so puzzling that voting on whether to make public transport free is banned in some cantons, but legal in others.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

The cantons of Zurich, Bern and Fribourg have expressly declared that voting on making public transport free is illegal under the Swiss constitution.

Vaud on the other hand has recently declared such a vote to be valid, with a future referendum to be held on the issue.

Neuchâtel also declared such a vote to be valid, although this is currently “under review”, as Swiss news agency Watson reports.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is voting on public transport illegal?

Under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, people can have an issue put to a vote when they gather enough signatures to do so.

This can take place at a cantonal level, as with a recent minimum wage vote in Ticino, or at a federal level.

With Switzerland’s federal system, some things are regulated at a federal level and some at a cantonal level, with public transport being an example of the latter.

When advocates of free public transport tried to push for a referendum in the cantons of Zurich, Bern and Fribourg, the cantonal authorities all came to the same conclusion: that such a vote was illegal.

Under the Swiss constitution, users of public transport are required to bear the costs “to a reasonable extent”.

It was the opinion of these cantons – or at least the government in charge – that this meant free public transport was constitutionally prohibited, and as such no vote on the matter could take place.

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Why is free public transport considered legal in some cantons?

Put simply, the cantonal authorities – which are given significant scope to decide on the legality of proposed referendum efforts – in Vaud and Neuchâtel did not share the same view as those in Zurich, Bern and Fribourg.

Vaud told Switzerland’s Watson news agency that the constitutional provision was far from clear on whether free public transport was banned outright.

The cantonal authorities referenced the legal maxim “in dubio pro populo” – which loosely translates as “if in doubt, decide for the people” – in justifying their decision.

According to Vaud authorities, cantonal governments have the right to decide whether to fully subsidise public transport for commuters under Swiss law – provided the canton and not the federal government pays the costs.

Authorities in Neuchâtel came to the same conclusion in 2018 when recommending the issue for a vote, but recently announced a review of the decision on the basis of the decision of the other cantons.

What does “reasonable” mean?

Like the cantons, legal experts are split on the issue of what “reasonable” means.

Some argue that commuters already cover the costs through their taxes paid to cantonal authorities, which represents a “reasonable” extent.

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Others, such as Zurich constitutional law professor Felix Uhlmann, argue that while some free travel is justified – for instance for children under six or for tourists as is the case in Basel City – making it completely free would be unconstitutional.

“I see a conflict with the federal constitution if public transport becomes free for the entire population”.

“But if we extend the freedom of charge to the entire population, we have definitely crossed the grey area.”

Uhlmann said that the efforts in Vaud and Neuchâtel will ultimately fail, as the issue is likely to go to the federal Supreme Court.

“Due to the number of initiatives alone, it is to be expected that a committee will contest the declaration of invalidity of the bill and ultimately the Federal Supreme Court will have to decide on the disputed issue,” Uhlmann told Swiss news outlet Watson.