Imprisonment Worldwide: The Current Situation and an Alternative Future

A new publication is proposing a radical re-think on the use of imprisonment worldwide and offers an alternative model for the future. Imprisonment Worldwide: The Current Situation and an Alternative Future’ has been published by Policy Press today.

The authors – members of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London – lay out the following central conclusion:

The significant increase in the use of imprisonment in recent decades is due in no small part to the manner in which criminal justice systems in many countries are used as a response to wider social and economic problems, particularly drug abuse and mental illness. Despite their best efforts prisons are singularly ill-equipped to deal with these problems.

In 2015 the United Nations agreed a set of Sustainable Development Goals intended to improve the quality of life for citizens in all countries. These goals deal with issues such as poverty, hunger, health, education, equality and productive employment. They also identify the need for justice systems to be part of this human development model. This will have important implications for the way that criminal justice systems operate and specifically for the way that imprisonment is used.

Imprisonment Worldwide provides a comprehensive yet concise account of prison populations worldwide alongside discussion of the ethical challenges and imperatives of prisons policy in the 21st century.

The book draws on the data in the World Prison Brief – a unique online data-base produced by the ICPR containing information on prison systems throughout the world – and the authors’ long experience of research, policy and practice in the field, to provide wide-ranging, up-to-date facts and figures on prison populations worldwide, such as:

  • More than 10.35 million people are imprisoned worldwide
  • Nearly a half of the world’s prisoners are in the USA (more than 2.2m), China (more than 1.65m), Russia (640,000) and Brazil (607,000)
  • Among the countries with the highest prison population rates (numbers of prisoners per 100,000 of national population) are the USA (698), Turkmenistan (583), Cuba (510); countries with the lowest prison population rates include Nigeria (31), India (33), Japan (48)
  • More than 700,000 women and girls are held in prisons throughout the world

Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-author of the book, Dr Jessica Jacobson, said:

“This book tells the story of the growing worldwide prison population. We see that many countries have vastly increased their dependence on imprisonment in recent decades: to the point that there are well over 10 million prisoners across the globe today, of whom a small but rapidly rising proportion are women.

“But the book also demonstrates that there’s nothing inevitable about prison population growth. As the huge economic and social costs of mass incarceration become ever clearer, policies to contain and reduce prisoner numbers are gaining ground in many parts of the world.” 

Commenting on the many uses of the book, Professor Andrew Coyle, Emeritus Professor of Prison Studies, University of London, and co-author of the book added: “Imprisonment Worldwide is intended to provoke thought and discussion and will be of great interest to all who are currently engaged in debate about prisons, the use of imprisonment and a possible alternative model.”  

‘Imprisonment Worldwide: The Current Situation and an Alternative Future’, priced £9.99 or £7.99, is available from the Policy Press website.

Click below to watch Dr Jessica Jacobson and Roy Walmsley talk about ICPR, the World Prison Brief and Imprisonment Worldwide:


About Imprisonment Worldwide

  • Imprisonment Worldwide is the first major product of the ICPR’s new programme of international prisons research. It presents data held on the World Prison Brief database – a unique online database which, since it was established in 2000 by its Director Roy Walmsley, has collated detailed information on prison systems and prison populations around the world. Today, the World Prison Brief (accessible at ICPR website) holds prisons data from more than 220 states and dependent territories.
  • Imprisonment Worldwide has been written by the following authors: Professor Andrew Coyle CMG is Emeritus Professor of Prison Studies, University of London; Helen Fair is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Criminal Policy Research; Dr Jessica Jacobson is Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research; Roy Walmsley established and is Director of the World Prison Brief

About the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR)

  • The ICPR is an independent research charity which undertakes academically-grounded, policy-oriented research into all aspects of the criminal justice system. ICPR produces work for a range of audiences including policy-makers and their advisers, and criminal justice practitioners, academics, and the wider public. ICPR is based in the Law School of Birkbeck, University of London. The World Population Prison List (11th edition) can be downloaded from the ICPR website.

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