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Prisons and prisoners in Europe

How does the UK compare to other European countries on prisons?

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Council of Europe report

Last week (8 April 2021), the Council of Europe published its latest update on prisons and prisoners based on information from prison administrations in the Council’s member states. These statistics are published annually and are known as SPACE 1. The statistics show that the overall European imprisonment rate- the number of persons in prison per 100,000 inhabitants – fell again slightly in 2020, consolidating a trend that started in 2013. On 31 January 2020, there were 1,528,343 inmates in 51 prison administrations (out of 52) of the Council of Europe member states, which corresponds to a European prison population rate of 103.2 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants.

Key findings

This reduction in the overall prison population partly reflects the decrease of traditional offences like theft and robbery over that period, which has not been compensated by the increase of cyber-related offences, namely cyber-frauds. Cybercrimes lead to less convictions because the perpetrators are often based outside the national territory and are difficult to trace and sanction.

The countries with the highest incarceration rates in January 2020 were Turkey (357 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants), Russia (356), Georgia (264), Lithuania (220) Azerbaijan (209), Czech Republic (197), Poland (195), Slovak Republic (193) and Estonia (184). Not taking into account countries with less than 300,000 inhabitants, the lowest incarceration rates were found in Iceland (45), Finland (50), Netherlands (59) and Norway (59).

For the first time, information was collected on the number of children living with their mothers in penal institutions, a total of 1,608 children in 37 administrations that provided this data. It is estimated that more than 2 million children in Europe have a parent in prison

The 87,367 women in prison represented 5% of the total prison population. The median age of all inmates was 36 years, 15% of them being over 50 and 2.5% of them 65 or over. The overall percentage of foreign inmates among the prison population increased from 14.4% in 2019 to 15.1% in the 40 countries that provided this data, but with important differences across countries. The proportion of inmates not serving a final sentence remained stable (22%).

Overall, prison density in Europe remained stable: there were 90.3 inmates for every 100 available places in prisons compared to the 89.5 inmates per 100 places in 2019. Fourteen prisons administration reported prison density of more than 100 inmates per 100 places – an indicator of overcrowding – one administration less than in 2019. Overall overcrowding was most serious – on 31 January – in Turkey (127 inmates per 100 available places), Italy (120), Belgium (117), Cyprus (116), France (116), Hungary (113) Romania (113), Greece (109), Slovenia (109) and Serbia (107).

Drug-related offences continued to be the reason for which prisoners had been convicted most often in the 42 prison administrations that provided this data (close to 260,000 inmates representing 17.7% of the total prison population), followed by theft (199,000 inmates, 13%) and homicide – including attempts -(169,000, 12%). Four of every 10 inmates had been convicted for offences involving violence (homicide, assault and battery, rape and other sexual offences, and robbery).

Close to 8 out of 100 inmates had been convicted for rape or other types of sexual offences: a total of 81,188 prisoners. Three of every 100 prisoners were serving sentences for traffic offences: some 24,000 prisoners in the 40 administrations that provided this data. Prison administrations reported having 30,524 prisoners convicted for terrorism offences, most of them in Turkey (29,827), followed by France (292) and Spain (209).

How the UK ranks

The report ranks all prison administrations on a number of measures with different countries divided into six rankings: very high; high; medium; low; very low and no data available. The prison administrations in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are ranked separately. Below I have listed the main instances when prison administrations in the UK are ranked in the very high or high bracket.

Very high

  • Prison population rate   England & Wales, Scotland
  • Suicide rate   England & Wales
  • Rate of escapes  England & Wales
  • Percentage of inmates not serving a final sentence (on remand)   Northern Ireland


  • Percentage of prison population aged over 50   England & Wales
  • Prison density per 100 places  England & Wales, Scotland

As reported in many media outlets, the UK spent the most amount of money on its prison administration than any other European country. The figures (which apply to 2019) are, naturally in Euros: England & Wales: €3.918bn, Northern Ireland: €125m. The figure for Scotland was not available in the Council of Europe report but the Scottish Government’s prison budget for the financial year 2018/19 was £361.4m or €417m.

This makes the total prison budget for the UK in 2019 €4.461bn, with the next highest figure being the €4.174bn spent by Russia.


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