Birkbeck, University of London > News > More than 10.35 million people are in prison around the world, new Birkbeck report reveals

More than 10.35 million people are in prison around the world, new Birkbeck report reveals

More than 10.35 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world according to the latest edition of the World Prison Population List (WPPL), researched and compiled by Roy Walmsley and published today by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck.

Including the numbers reported to be held in detention centres in China and in prison camps in North Korea, the total may well be in excess of 11 million.

The WPPL provides up-to-date information on the global prison population and the rate per 100,000 of the national population in 223 countries and territories. Figures are unavailable for only three countries – Eritrea, North Korea and Somalia.

The report includes information about trends in prison population levels and about the difference between male and female prison population levels.

The new report reveals there are:

  • More than 2.2 million prisoners in the United States of America
  • More than 1.65 million in China (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention or ‘administrative detention’)
  • 640,000 in the Russian Federation
  • 607,000 in Brazil
  • 418,000 in India
  • 311,000 in Thailand
  • 255,000 in Mexico
  • 225,000 in Iran

Prison population rate

The countries with the highest prison population rate – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population – are Seychelles (799 per 100,000), followed by the United States (698), St. Kitts & Nevis (607), Turkmenistan (583), U.S. Virgin Islands (542), Cuba (510), El Salvador (492), Guam - U.S.A. (469), Thailand (461), Belize (449), Russian Federation (445), Rwanda (434) and British Virgin Islands (425).

However, more than half of all countries and territories (55%) have a prison population rate of below 150 per 100,000.

The world prison population rate, based on United Nations estimates of national population levels, is 144 per 100,000.

Prison population rates vary considerably between different regions of the world, and between different parts of the same continent. For example:

  • in Africa the median rate for western African countries is 52 whereas for southern African countries it is 188;
  • in the Americas the median rate for south American countries is 242 whereas for Caribbean countries it is 347;
  • in Asia the median rate for south central Asian countries (mainly the Indian sub-continent) is 74 whereas for central Asian countries it is 166
  • in Europe the median rate for western European countries is 84 whereas for the countries spanning Europe and Asia (e.g. Russia and Turkey) it is 236
  • in Oceania the median rate is 155.

Since about the year 2000 the world prison population total has grown by almost 20%, which is slightly above the estimated 18% increase in the world’s general population over the same period.

Population trends, and female prisoner totals

There are considerable differences in prison population trends between the continents, and variation within continents. The total prison population in Oceania has increased by almost 60% and that in the Americas by over 40%; in Europe, by contrast, the total prison population has decreased by 21%. The European figure reflects large falls in prison populations in Russia and in central and eastern Europe. In the Americas, the prison population has increased by 14% in the USA, by over 80% in central American countries and by 145% in south American countries.

The female prison population total has increased by 50% since about 2000, while the equivalent figure for the male prison population is 18%.

The female total has increased proportionately more than the male total in every continent. Consequently the proportion of women and girls in the total world prison population has risen from 5.4% in about 2000 to 6.8% in the latest figures available.

More information on prison population rates and trends, alongside discussion of the ethical challenges and imperatives of prisons policy in the 21st century, will be presented in the forthcoming book Imprisonment Worldwide (Andrew Coyle, Helen Fair, Jessica Jacobson and Roy Walmsley), to be published by Policy Press in summer 2016.

Compiler of the World Prison Population List, Roy Walmsley, comments:

“It is of great concern that there are now over 10.35 million people held in penal institutions throughout the world. What is of greater concern is that the world prison population continues to rise, and to rise very sharply in some parts of the world.

“This should prompt policy makers in all countries to consider what they can do to limit the numbers in custody, given the high costs and disputed efficacy of imprisonment and the fact that prison overcrowding is widespread. The disproportionate rise in the female prison population is particularly shocking.”

Co-Director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Jessica Jacobson, comments:

“This latest edition of the World Prison Population List reveals the size of the worldwide prison population, and how widely prison population rates and trends vary between regions and countries.  Politicians and policy-makers in much of the world are now recognising that continued growth in prison populations simply cannot be sustained.

“We hope that states and international organisations will work together to reverse this growth and to help to build safer societies through more appropriate use of custody and wider use of its alternatives.”

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Published: 03 February 2016