EU prisons
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

11 things I learnt about prisons in Europe

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How does the UK's penal system compare to 49 other European countries?

Incarceration in Europe

The Council of Europe has just (8 March 2016) published its annual penal statistics (relating to 2014) and it’s crammed full of interesting facts. Here’s 11 things which I found worth sharing:

1: There are 1,600,324 prisoners in Europe.

2: The average prison population rate is 136 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants.

3: The prisons in 13 (out of 50) European countries are over-crowded.

4: The Ukraine spends least on its prisoners — €2.68 per inmate per day — and San Marino the most — €685 (more than 250 times more).

5: The median proportion of female inmates in the total prison population is 5%.

6: Nearly a quarter (23%) of all female prisoners were pre-trial.

7: On average there were 3 prisoners per prison officer (“custodian” is the term used).

8: The average suicide rate is 5 per 10,000 prisoners.

9: The average escape rate is 1 per 10,000 prisoners.

10: Foreigners make up 93% of the prison population in Monaco (73% in Switzerland and 59% in Greece).

11: 45% prisoners in Malta are in custody for drug offences.

How does the UK compare?

I thought it would be interesting to examine how the UK compares on some of these key statistics with other European countries. I have picked France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia and Spain to represent either countries we like to compare ourselves with or those who are known to be particularly “liberal” or punitive on penal issues.

Here are my tables:

Characteristics of prison populations

characteristic prison population

You can see that we imprison a higher proportion of our population than all these comparator countries apart from Russia.


most common offences

[Note: homicide figures includes attempted homicides.]

As you can see, many other countries have even higher proportions of prisoners convicted of drug offences. (The fact that over a quarter of Russian prisoners are serving time for murder or attempted murder is striking to say the least.)

Life in custody

EU life in custody

You can see that only the Netherlands has fewer prison officers per prisoner than the UK, although the Dutch spend more than twice the amount we do on their prisoners.


The main aspect of the report which was highlighted in the British press was the fact that the UK has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. It is this fact which should give Justice Secretary Mr Gove the confidence to reduce our prison population. Whatever his views on the European Union, this is surely not a league table he wants to be at the bottom of.

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2 Responses

  1. “this is surely not a league table he wants to be at the bottom of.” But for Mail readers, this is table we are at the top of!

    Interesting analysis Russell, as ever. Pity we dont have comparative reoffending rates, but I have never been able to find any that are truly comparable. Something all those criminologists might usefully do! Staffing ratio doesn’t look right, way adrift from MoJ data, even post cuts – but as ever, the devil is in the data definitions.

  2. Hi Julian
    I think you are right about some of the data. I’ve just finished a companion piece on European probation – going out next week and I was less than convinced by some of the information. However, it is all supplied by government agencies themselves, so must be right…

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