Post by Laura Rezzonico, PhD candidate at the nccr – on the move “The Migration-Mobility Nexus”, University of Neuchâtel. Laura Rezzonico is conducting an ethnographic study of immigration detention facilities in Switzerland as part of the research project “Restricting Immigration: Practices, Experiences and Resistance”, directed by Christin Achermann. This post is part of the themed series ‘Exploring the Everyday of immigration detention’. This is the fourth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘Exploring the everyday of immigration detention’, organised by  Annika Lindberg and Laura Rezzonico.

In contrast to many other countries, Switzerland confines most of its immigration detainees in ordinary prisons. Among around 30 facilities used for this purpose, only 5 are used exclusively for immigration detention, while the other confine convicted or on remand prisoners under the same roof, although usually in separated areas. The prison system is thus reinvested with a new role: confining migrants pending deportation, and facilitating deportation attempts. As a consequence, prison officers are those in charge of the confinement and exclusion of migrants. They are constantly confronted with their suffering, which may take the form of bewilderment, anger, or despair. The daily interactions between prison officers and detained migrants could result in a constructive encounter where both could learn something from each other’s trajectories and experiences. However, during my observations of the daily life and work in detention, I was often struck by the ways in which any meaningful contact was averted, even during personal interactions. When prison officers open or close doors, when they deliver meals or any other goods, when they accompany detainees through the prison space, very often there is hardly any communication. Following Nick Gill (see a book review here), in this post I show how the (lack of) interactions between staff and detainees are shaped by specific spatial and institutional arrangements that facilitate the moral detachment of staff in a condition of overexposure to suffering. Drawing on my ethnographic research in two Swiss prisons, which confine migrants pending deportation, I will also reflect on the symbolic effect of such use of prisons and show how it affects understandings of immigration detention, contributing to processes of moral distancing.

Interacting in the carceral space: material and administrative barriers

Doors, bars, glass walls: the whole prison space has the function of separating bodies and distinguishing between those detained and those detaining, as argued by Kynsilehto and Puumala. The specific material and spatial configurations of the prison also shape the ways in which individuals interact with each other (see also Enjolras, Milhaud and Moran). I would like here to give an emblematic example of this as I observed it in one of the two prisons where I conducted research. There, most interactions between staff and detainees occurred through a porthole in the cell’s door, which prevented them from seeing the whole body of the other person. The person behind the door was then reduced to a hand, a fragment of a face, or a voice, making it difficult to acknowledge him or her as a full person with feelings and opinions. Hence, the porthole acted as a physical barrier to communication, and also had a dehumanising effect.

Photo: Marco Zanoni

Other barriers are not that visible but nevertheless powerful in their impact to prevent a relationship of empathy from developing. For example, the use of forms required from detainees to make any request was introduced in both prisons aiming at rendering prison work more efficient. Acting as a mediator between staff and detainees, such forms create a distance and make it easier for staff to detach themselves from the pains of detainees (see also Gill, Bauman). The rotation of staff members between different detention sections is another of those measures that Nick Gill describes as ‘institutional tactics’ that facilitate moral distance. Its function of creating distance is actually desired by the prison director, who argued: ‘We do not want to create any close relationship, because we do not offer a therapeutic setting, and we do not work with a system of reference persons’. This quote brings us to the topic of the next section.

A question of roles? Maintaining distance or the institutional production of (in)difference

The institutional roles attributed to staff and detainees by the prison (see Goffman) also contribute to producing distance, as a detainee pointed out: ‘He is the guard and I am the prisoner, it’s a bit different, we can’t be friends’. Prison staff wear uniform and carry the keys, while detainees find themselves locked up by staff. This difference in roles and power is in itself a barrier and makes it difficult for an empathic relationship to develop. Furthermore, such connection with detainees is not expected from prison officers. The institution requires from them a ‘professional’ conduct, meaning that they have to behave according to their institutional role, maintain a certain distance from individual detainees, and treat them equally. Spending time discussing with one detainee or making exceptions can be seen as a transgression of internal regulations, which provide detailed guidance on how to address detainees or shake hands in appropriate ways.

Picture from the film “Special flight” (2011) by Fernand Melgar

Despite the material barriers and institutional mechanisms, which serve to maintain a distance between the two groups, the emergence of empathy among employees is frequent. Hall points out that empathy disturbs the logics of detention, challenging a clear differentiation between ‘citizen’ and ‘other’. But empathy is also a source of frustration for prison staff and its emergence is sometimes prevented by the officers’ need of estrangement, as this employee describes:

‘I feel sorry for her [detainee], I find it so bad [that she is sent back to Hungary]. But… I can’t help her, yes, I cannot do much and in general, yes, you are quickly a bit hardened. (…) you see it so much, you see it every day, it becomes almost normal. You can’t really do anything’.

Simply explained by this prison officer, the ‘overexposure to suffering’ produces a normalization of suffering, as argued by Gill. Furthermore, the position of the prison at the margins of the deportation system makes it easier for prison officers to detach themselves from the individual pains and fates of detainees. Without any decision-making power, they often lack any knowledge of the personal situations of detainees.

Making sense of difference: moralized understandings of immigration detention

The use of prisons for immigration detention is a meaningful policy with important consequences. Prison architecture and logics impact the everyday practices and experiences of detention, while migrants are practically and symbolically criminalized. In addition, the confinement of migrants pending deportation together with people accused or convicted of crimes also influence detainees’ and staff’s mutual representations as well as their understandings of immigration detention.

According to the law, immigration detainees must be held separately from other detainees. However, the degree of separation ranges widely from one facility to another and very often ‘migrants’ and ’criminals’ are confined in almost identical spaces and conditions in Switzerland. The fact that detention staff work on rotation in different prison wings and thus with different types of detainees causes confusion among prison officers. They know the difference between different types of detention, but regardless of whether detainees are convicted of a crime or awaiting deportation, their tasks are practically the same.

Picture from the film “Special flight” (2011) by Fernand Melgar

In this context, it is not surprising that prison officers rely on the confusion between penal and administrative detention to make sense of the category of immigration detainees (see also Bosworth). Indeed, staff often highlight that ‘they are not criminal, but… they are illegal’, implicitly relating the illegality of their stay to the illegality of crimes committed by other prisoners. But illegality as a category of law is often accompanied by illegitimacy as a moral category. Detention is then understood within a state system which sorts ‘true’ refugees from ‘bogus’ asylum seekers and legitimate from illegitimate migrants. Those who end up in detention must inevitably be the ‘undeserving’ ones, as the following quotation of a prison officer shows:

‘Something that always depresses me is that you see many people from Syria on TV who have to sleep under tents: old people, children, and so on. They are not here. Because those who are here… they are young people, who have money, some of them have done bad shit. Those are here. The poor people who are there, down there, they cannot come, because they don’t have the money for the journey. That’s the worst [thing]’.

In this way, the institutionalized dichotomy between refugees and economic migrants is internalized and mobilized in order to justify the system of detention and deportation. Firmly believing in the Swiss system and highlighting the supposed fairness and generosity of the state with migrants in general, detention staff sees it as ‘benevolent violence’, sort of a side effect of a fair system. They often conclude that if someone ended up in prison, he or she must have in some way deserved it. Following this view, it is also easier to feel indifferent to their suffering. Furthermore, as argued by Hall, the unknown past and the contested identity of detainees make them more suspect and potentially threatening (see also Griffiths) in the eyes of staff: ‘you don’t know who they are: they could have killed ten people in their country of origin and ten during the journey to Europe, or they could have done nothing bad, you don’t know’, a detention officer told me during an informal conversation. In those discourses, the unknown past of migrants seems to indirectly legitimize the fact that they are detained.

In this post, I hope to have shown how physical and material barriers but also institutional measures and professional roles attributed by the prison institution shape the interactions and relations between staff and detainees. The confusion produced by the use of prisons also affects their mutual representations and understandings of immigration detention, mainly resulting in a condition of indifference. Empathy and meaningful exchanges do occur but are rather exceptional. While it is difficult to say if state practices are intentionally designed for this purpose, they do have the effect of producing indifference, thus enabling the violent outcomes of border control on its subjects.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Rezzonico, L. (2017) Maintaining Distance, Producing Indifference: Interactions between Staff and Detainees in Swiss Prisons Used for Immigration Detention. Available at: (Accessed [date]).