BASEL, Switzerland — Ursula Biondi was 17 when she was incarcerated in the Hindelbank prison for women near Bern in 1967, forced to work long hours without pay and left wondering when she would be released. Biondi’s crime? She was pregnant.
“I was just like young people are today, which meant I was something Swiss society back then could not tolerate,” said Biondi. By following the archaic moral codes of the day, she added, the authorities “destroyed too many lives.”
Biondi’s case was not an isolated one. Beginning in 1942, Switzerland operated under the so-called “morality laws,” a set of federal and cantonal codes dating to the mid-19th century that began to be repealed in 1981.
Under them, more than 10,000 people in Bern alone (the only canton for which the numbers are available) were incarcerated without a trial. Their crimes included getting pregnant, drinking too much alcohol, being deemed lazy or having "loose morals." For decades afterward, people who, like Biondi, violated these laws and paid dearly for it stayed silent.
But recently, the alpine country has been rocked by the stories of these prisoners after the publication of a book by journalist Dominique Strebel: In "Weggesperrt" ("Locked Away"), he details these “administrative detentions,” as they were called, and hints that they were an almost eugenistic attempt to remove those deemed "misfits" from society.
“It was a society in fear of change,” Strebel said. “They tried to tighten the conservative norms by punishing behavior that went against the mores of the day.”
The nightmare for Biondi started when she was five months pregnant by her long-standing boyfriend. Her parents wanted to save her from “dishonor,” and turned to the authorities for help. She was detained “for her own protection,” she recalled, and put in prison for just over one year. “My parents thought that I would be taken to a reform school but Hindelbank was nothing more than a prison subsidized by the gullible,” said Biondi, whose parents paid for the privilege.
In fact, for the Swiss government, these incarcerations were quite lucrative, writes Strebel, because these inmates were not provided with therapy, education or vocational training in order to be rehabilitated back into society.
The breaking point for Biondi was when her baby was taken away 10 days after his birth. “I was constantly screaming and I tried to commit suicide several times,” she recalled. Three months later, she did get her son back. Others were not so lucky. Her fellow prisoner and friend, Madeleine Ischer, incarcerated for the same reason, also gave birth while in prison. Forty-four years later, she still hasn’t located her child. Other prisoners, Strebel details in his book, not only lost their children but were sterilized against their will.
At Hindelbank, those under administrative detention were treated just like the other inmates, writes Strebel, and lived side-by-side with murderers and other violent offenders. In some ways, the convicts had it better: They received wages for their work and knew the length of their sentences — and they had the right to an appeal.
After being released, things did not get any easier for Biondi or the other prisoners. “For 30 years, I felt like garbage,” she said. Her life following incarceration was marked by more suicide attempts, depression, bulimia, loneliness and perpetual rage. Therapy didn’t really help, she says, and most people she told didn’t believe her story.
Ursula Biondi gave birth to her son while in prison.
(Courtesy of Ursula Biondi)
Even so, Biondi eventually married and has had a successful career as a trainer in international organizations — an exception for these prisoners. Most fell into drugs and alcohol or have ended up on the streets, said Christoph Poeschman, another detainee. Nearly all the prisoners have had a difficult time finding employment because they have a prison record.
Poeschman becomes emotional when he recalls his time in prison. His offense was to have run away at 16 from life as a farm worker in order to enroll in a naval school in Hamburg. In 1976, he was detained at the Swiss border and put in the Dietisberg jail. “We had to go in the mountains to pick up logs,” he recalled. “It is shameful that we had to do forced labor even though we were innocent.”
Recently, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf acknowledged the morality detainees were imprisoned “without due process” and apologized for what was done to them. Now a group of Swiss lawmakers is trying to pass legislation to provide them with financial compensation.
“It was a dark chapter in Swiss history and we are only at the beginning of the process,” said Swiss lawmaker Paul Rechsteiner, admitting that passing such a measure will be difficult.
Still, prisoners such as Gina Rubeli say that although their reputations were ruined and financial compensation can’t change that, being publicly acknowledged and apologized to is gratifying.
In 1970, Rubeli felt suffocated by her small Swiss village and wanted to move to a bigger town, have a career, go out with friends and listen to Jimi Hendrix. Her parents pushed her to work at the local factory and get married. After a suicide attempt, Rubeli ended up in Hindelbank prison for 12 months.
“When I told people that I had been in jail even though I was innocent, they always replied, ‘all prisoners believe they are innocent,’” she said. “People could not conceive that something like this had taken place in Switzerland.”