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How does our prison system compare?
The Council of Europe's SPACE I Report lets us compare prison systems in the UK with 46 other countries.

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SPACE I Report

Earlier this week (5 April 2022) the Council of Europe published its Annual Penal Statistics on Prison Populations for 2021. The survey, known as the SPACE I Report, provides comprehensive data from 49 European prison administrations on issues including total prison populations, incarceration rates, sentences, offences and staffing as well as rates of mortality, suicide and escape.

The report shows that the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to reducing the prison population in Europe between January 2020 and January 2021, consolidating a ten-year-long trend in most European states.

Key factors contributing to the decrease of the prison population were the reduction in certain types of crimes in the context of the restrictions of movement during the pandemic, the slowing down of the judicial systems, and the release schemes used in some countries to prevent or reduce the spread of Covid-19.

On 31 January 2021, there were 1,414,172 inmates detained in the 49 prison administrations of Council of Europe member states that provided this information (out of 52), which corresponds to a European prison population rate of 102 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In the 48 prison administrations for which information is available for both 2020 and 2021, this rate fell from 104.3 to 101.9 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants (-2.3%).

The countries with the highest incarceration rates on 31 January 2021 were Russia (328 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants), Turkey (325), Georgia (232), Azerbaijan (216), Slovakia (192), Lithuania (190) and the Czech Republic (180). Ignoring very small countries, the lowest incarceration rates were found in Iceland (41), Finland (43), Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (50), Netherlands (54) and Slovenia (54).

In this blog post, I pick out some key statistics to show how the prison systems in the UK (there are separate figures for England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) compare with the rest of Europe, starting with the overall prison population. On 31 January 2021, the countries with the largest total number of inmates were Russia (478,714), Turkey (272,115), the United Kingdom (87,035), Poland (67,894), France (62,673), Germany (59,045), Spain (55,110), Italy (53,329) and Ukraine (49,520).

Incarceration rate

In January 2021, the prison population rate per 100,000 inhabitants (the incarceration rate) was 134.9 in Scotland, 131.5 in England & Wales and 73.8 in Northern Ireland; this compares to a Europe-wide average of 116.1 and median of 101.8.

Age of criminal responsibility

The countries reporting the lowest age of criminal responsibility were England & Wales,  Northern Ireland and Switzerland (all 10 years), followed by the Scotland, Andorra, Ireland, the Netherlands and Turkey (12 years).

Life imprisonment

This is an area in which we are a long way out of step with the rest of Europe and recent legislation and sentencing practice is likely to widen the gap even further. In England & Wales, 6,985 out of a total of 67,352 sentenced prisoners were serving life imprisonment in January 2021; this compares to 483 inmates serving life imprisonment in France, 1,782 in Germany and 1,783 in Italy. Similarly, 19.2% of prisoners in Northern Ireland were sentenced to life imprisonment in January 2021, the highest proportion across Europe; this compares to 18.1% of prisoners in Scotland, 10.4% in England & Wales and a Europe-wide average of 3.3% and median of 1.7%. 

© Andy Aitchison

The SPACE Report also ranks countries in a range of different penal categories in terms of the European median value using the rankings: very high (more than 25% higher than the median); high (between 5.1% and 25% higher); medium (self-explanatory), low (between 5.1% and 25% lower); and very low (more than 25% lower).

The English & Welsh prison system ranks very high on suicide rate and very low on escape rates.

Interestingly, England and Wales has a lower percentage of women prisoners (4% of overall prison population) compared to the European median (4.7%).

Scotland and Northern Ireland have a much lower proportion of people sentenced for drug offences (7.1% & 7.5% respectively) against a European median of  17.1% (the English & Welsh figure is 15.2%).


Thanks to Tom Blackout for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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