Alarming increase in global prison capacity
A new report, Global Prison Trends 2022, released today (11 May 2022) exposes the alarming expansion of the global prison capacity. The report by Penal Reform International (PRI), published with the Thailand Institute of Justice, reveals large-scale investment in new and expanded prisons in many countries, despite widespread calls to reduce prison populations in view of its harms and ineffectiveness.
The report finds that, in 2021, at least 24 countries announced plans for, or started construction of, new prison facilities – in total, creating at least 437,000 more spaces worldwide. Turkey accounts for more than half of this number, and Sri Lanka one fifth, with both countries adopting United States styled massive prison complexes. The report also identifies a general trend towards bigger prisons in more remote locations, which can limit the availability of services and the ability of families to visit their loved ones in prisons far away.
Governments commonly point to prison overcrowding as the main reason for investing in new prison facilities, despite evidence that building new prisons is not a long-term solution to the problem. In the face of repeated calls from international bodies to reduce prison numbers – amplified since the start of the pandemic – the global prison population has reached an all-time high. There are an estimated 11.5 million people are in prison worldwide and 119 countries are operating above their official prison capacity, including 11 countries with occupancy levels higher than 250%.
The infographic below shows the relentless growth in the number of people imprisoned across the world. There are 11.5 million people in prison today, a jump of 24% since 2000 with a third of people in pre-trial detention. There have been plenty of concerns in England and Wales about the recent surge in the numbers of people remanded in custody.
The report reveals the enduring impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the daily lives of people in prison and also those working in prisons. It finds that pandemic-related restrictions and stretched resources have seen limits on healthcare provision and heightened mental health needs, while at the same time, a lack of investment and political attention means there is a dire lack of mental health services in a large proportion of prisons globally. The pandemic has also led to staff absences and difficulties ensuring adequate staffing in prisons due to infection and isolation rules in some countries, bringing threats to safety and the effective functioning of healthcare, rehabilitation programmes and daily regimes in prisons.
The pandemic has also coincided with new and ongoing violent conflicts and increasing impacts of climate change, presenting unprecedented challenges to prison systems globally.
The report finds that over 680,500 people are in prison in fragile and conflict-affected situations, often facing inhumane conditions of detention as prisons lack even basic material needs, have high rates of torture and ill-treatment and have become targets in conflicts over the past year. In Ukraine, at least 5 prisons have been attacked by Russian troops and prisons in active conflict zones (33 prisons as of March 2022) have had difficulty providing for basic needs like food, medicines and hygiene supplies, as well as electricity generators, cars and body armour, with authorities taking measures to evacuate people to detention facilities in other regions of the country.
The consequences of climate change on prisons is another challenge documented in PRI’s report. Despite almost 30% of the global prison population living in the 12 countries most exposed to natural hazards, prisons are rarely accounted for in hazard-risk management, mitigation plans or disaster responses. The report finds that extreme weather conditions and natural hazards have led to fatalities, illness, contamination of water supply, spread of infection, prison unrest, escapes and being cut off from the outside world.
Thanks to Hasan Almasi for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.