11.7 million people in prison
A new report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its “data matters” series reveals that at the end of 2019, an estimated 11.7 million persons were detained in prisons across the world. This is a population comparable in size to entire nations such as Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia. Depressingly, the report also reveals that since 2000, the population held in prison has increased by more than 25%. Although most people detained in prison globally are men (93%), over the last 20 years the number of women in prisons has increased at a faster pace (33% increase) than men (25% increase).
The report shows that imprisonment rates vary considerably across the world, from nearly 600 prisoners per 100,000 in Northern America to around 50 in Southern Asia. Northern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe have experienced a long-term decrease in imprisonment rates (up to 27% decrease since 2000), while other regions, such as Latin America and Australia/New Zealand, have seen growth over the last two decades (up to 68% increase).
One in three unsentenced
While the incarceration of alleged offenders should be a measure of last resort, many prisoners are detained without a sentence. The global share of unsentenced detainees in the prison population has not changed much in the past 20 years, ranging between 29% and 31%. As you can see from the graphic below, the proportion of unsentenced prisoners varies considerably across the globe. Interestingly, the percentage of unsentenced prisoners is higher in Australia & New Zealand and Western Europe than it is in Northern America and Eastern Europe.
Prison overcrowding is widespread around the world. Of the 100 countries and territories for which UNODC has data on both prison capacity and prison occupancy between 2014 and 2019, 47% are operating at more than 100% of intended capacity. A smaller share of countries and territories (18%) operate at more than 150% of the intended capacity. International comparison of overcrowding can be complicated because there is no universal standard on the amount of prison space appropriate for each prisoner. Prison capacities are determined locally. Countries that are more generous in the space allocated to each prisoner may appear to be more overcrowded than those where higher prisoner densities are accepted in determining official prison capacity. For this reason, direct comparisons are difficult. With this caveat in mind, the available data show strong regional variation in overcrowding levels. Countries in Africa and the Americas have on average high numbers of prisoners compared to their available space, but in every world region there are countries where prison capacity is insufficient. The Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing reveals that in 2019/20 two in every three prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded (80 of the 121 prisons), with nearly 18,700 people held in overcrowded accommodation—more than a fifth of the prison population.
Of course, the problem of prison overcrowding rose in prominence recently due to the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 prevention measures that are currently implemented in the community, such as physical distancing and tight hygiene protocols, are often difficult to implement in prisons, especially when they are overcrowded. According to a global analysis of official and media sources, as of May 2021, it was estimated that nearly 550,000 prisoners in 122 countries have become infected with COVID-19, with close to 4,000 fatalities in prisons in 47 countries. In response to the pandemic, some prisons limited recreation, work opportunities, and visitation rights, all essential components of rehabilitation programmes. Some countries opted to release, at least temporarily, large numbers of people in custody, particularly remand prisoners and those convicted of non-violent offences. Since March 2020, at least 700,000 persons around the globe – or roughly 6% of the estimated global prison population – have been authorized or considered eligible for release through emergency release mechanisms adopted by 119 countries.