Private letter boxes behind bars

Scented letters and decisions from the judicial authorities – Swiss Post also delivers to prison. For example, to Thorberg prison in the Burgdorf region. The service is less spectacular than it might sound which makes a visit all the more intriguing.

Fredy Gasser

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Gisela Schmutz at the gates of the Thorberg
Post for prison: the delivery person Gisela Schmutz in front of the main entrance to the Thorberg penitentiary in the canton of Bern.

The connection to the outside world is a yellow delivery van – behind the steering wheel sits Gisela Schmutz from the Hindelbank Swiss Post delivery office. Today she’s on the ‘331’ round. This goes up to ThorbergTarget not accessible, 10 minutes away from Swiss Post’s storage facility in Hindelbank. The route winds its way past meadows, farmhouses and – despite the pouring rain – bright yellow rapeseed fields and into the village of Krauchthal. After a few final bends up the hill, mail carrier Gisela reaches her first stop-off point – the sturdy grated door at the entrance to the prison.

For outsiders it’s quite an extraordinary place, but a familiar location to mail carrier Gisela: “I grew up around here – our farmhouse is just over there.” As a child she often encountered inmates dressed in brown overalls. She was still working on the farm at the time but not any more.

Gisela Schmutz behind a fence
Prison inmates also like to order online: Gisela Schmutz is loading her VW Caddy.

Gisela drives her yellow VW Caddy into the vehicle gateway, while the heavy door closes gently behind the van. There are now bars both behind and in front of her. “The two doors can never be open at the same time,” explains Gisela. On the right – between the external and inner grated doors and behind protective glass – is the reception area of Thorberg prison. As well as receiving all kinds of visitors, it’s also the prison’s mail collection point. Gisela is opening the vehicle’s rear doors for Thorberg today – a few parcels and the grey PostBox containing letters. But

Gisela Schmutz in the reception area

not all letters are the same

Gisela pushes the parcels through a large flap under the reception desk. “Hello everyone” – “Hi, Gisela.” Everyone’s on familiar terms. The prison security staff take receipt of the parcels and put them on a conveyor belt for inspection. The same procedure is used at the prison as the one at airports. All contents are checked, including prohibited or dangerous items. “But we obviously don’t open any letters,” indicates Simon Peier, the Head of Security and Communications at Thorberg who has seen a lot of things in his time. More about that later. First the letter mail is sorted: “There’s mail for the office, but also court documents and obviously mail for inmates,” explains Simon Peier. Even love letters? Yes, we get the “occasional scented letter” too.

At the prison entrance desk: All content is controlled.

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Gisela scans the official mail with her mobile device while a security officer checks the addresses. “No, we’re not familiar with this one,” he says all of a sudden. Gisela checks again, while he takes another look at the records. “No, definitely not.” Gisela takes a registered letter back. That’s a normal part of the everyday postal routine.

Normality on the inside and on the outside

The postal service is especially important in everyday life in Thorberg. “The mail brings a bit of normality to everyday life in prison,” explains Thorberg director Hans-Rudolf Schwarz. “But it’s ultimately the same as on the outside: if a parcel or letter doesn’t arrive, that can cause some grief.” It is also important that the occupants are connected to their relatives via Skype – monitored like a physical visit – or a cell phone. “At the end of the day, video calls will never be able to replace a scented letter from a partner, or a drawing from a daughter.”

Family contact and release letters

The prisoners themselves can also vouch for how important receiving mail is in day-to-day prison life “Mail is important to us because it allows us to stay in touch with our families and the outside world,” says one inmate. “Not to mention the fact that letters with details about our release are also sent to us by post.” According to another inmate: “Letters are really important to us.” And a third one adds: “The most important things in Switzerland arrive by mail: letters, invoices, subscriptions, reminders and contracts.”

For the director of the prison, one thing is clear: “Thanks to Swiss Post, prisoners can be in touch with their families.” In this confined space, the ability to communicate by mail is such a relief. “It helps everyone here get through the day.”

Gisela Schmutz with letters

Packages with surprise consequences

Team leader Marcel Hofstetter helps with loading.

Back to the entry desk, the parcels and their contents. The notorious file hidden in the equally notorious cake is the romanticized stuff of movies. “Electronic data media” are more of a concern in prisons today, according to Head of Security Peier. As well as drugs. A parcel addressed to ‘Thorberg prison’ without any further details, but full of drugs once provided some real drama at Thorberg. Who was the intended recipient? And who sent it? That’s all part and parcel of the daily routine at Thorberg. As is online shopping. Prison inmates also like to order things online. Thorberg has set up special accounts with major retailers and suppliers: this means the person placing the order remains anonymous to the outside world and the security team has the flow of goods under control. There are still surprises sometimes though: “We often receive parcels from abroad containing goods liable to customs duty,” the Head of Security adds. After the delight of receiving tobacco from their native country, inmates face a hefty customs bill. That’s all part and parcel of the daily routine at Thorberg too.

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Mail from Thorberg

So much for the mail delivered to Thorberg prison. The normal procedure is used for mail collected from the facility. The security team takes all mail from the office and inmates to the ‘Volg’ delivery point (branch with partner) every day, explains Peier, the Head of Security. All parcels are checked and the mail is sorted. Gisela packs her grey PostBox into the Caddy, gets in with a last look at the barbed wire and turns to leave. The barred door opens slowly. She drives out down the hill and into the region’s free environment. The grated door shuts behind her. Then both doors are closed again. That’s the normal routine in Thorberg.

Photo of Gisela Schmutz
Even in rainy weather, there is always time for a smile: Deliverer Gisela Schmutz.

written by

Fredy Gasser