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The Ten Country Prisons Project

‘Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries’ is an international research and policy project being conducted under the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research’s World Prison Research Programme.

This is a photo of a person behind a prison fence

Recent decades have seen unrelenting growth in the use of imprisonment as a response to crime and disorder. Because of rapidly rising prisoner numbers and the lack of resources to cope with them, many prison systems around the world are in crisis. There is, though, a growing recognition of the failings of imprisonment as a response to social problems, and an increasing awareness that many of these problems can be better tackled outside criminal justice – for example, through health-informed interventions and harm reduction initiatives.

Since 2016 the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR)- based at Birkbeck’s School of Law- has, through its World Prison Research Programme, been conducting policy-oriented, comparative research to capitalise on this growing awareness. In this work, ICPR collaborates closely with civil society organisations and practitioners across the world, to map out an alternative to endlessly rising prison populations.  

In the Ten Country Prisons project, researchers are examining the use of imprisonment in ten contrasting jurisdictions across five continents. Broadly, the research aims to advance understanding of the factors that drive high levels of imprisonment and help develop the capacity of civil society and governmental organisations to surmount barriers to penal reform. To achieve these aims, they are working closely with local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders to highlight the harms of excessive use of imprisonment and to devise and disseminate workable strategies for reducing the resort to custody.

The team obtain the quantitative data used in the project from our own unique World Prison Brief database, which has been sourcing, compiling and publishing data on world prison populations since 2000.

The countries being studied are:

Kenya                                South Africa

Brazil                                 USA (special focus on New York State)

India                                  Thailand

England & Wales               Hungary

The Netherlands                Australia (special focus on New South Wales)

Project publications give an overview of imprisonment in the ten countries, describe problems with the over-use of pre-trial detention and report on prisoners’ health and healthcare in the ten countries; with work currently underway on a report looking at sentencing in the ten jurisdictions.

There are also a number of blogs on the research including a piece on Prison overcrowding and the risks for public health: a global time-bomb? for the NGO Fair Trials, one on Pre-trial detention and its overuse for the Birkbeck website, and on sentencing, A short prison sentence, a fine, or life imprisonment – all for the same offence: Exploring sentence disparities in ten countries for the NGO Penal Reform International.

This is a photo of prison cells

Adapting our research to describe the impact of COVID-19 in prisons

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic the research team are conducting additional research in the ten countries, to understand the impact of measures that prison administrations have been taking to control the risk of COVID-19 spread. These measures include stopping visits and reducing inflows and outflows for work or home leave. We are researching the extent to which compensatory steps have been taken, such as allowing for video-calls or more access to telephones in-cell or on prison wings. 

They are considering how these changes have affected prisoners, including through interviews with serving or recently released prisoners. A commentary paper on COVID-19’s impact on world prison populations was published in the journal Victims & Offenders in October 2020.

The partner for this research is the NGO Prison Insider. Prison Insider aims to raise awareness about detention conditions and to uphold the rights and dignity of those deprived of freedom throughout the world. We are also working with a range of partners from civil society and academic institutions in the ten countries.

Project Fact File:

Full project title: ‘Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries’

Funders: Open Society Foundations (and one other funder)

Total grant value: US$ 200,000

Length of award: March 2017 - April 2021

PrincipaI Investigator: Catherine HeardCo-Investigators: Professor Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair (ICPR)

Further Information

Read more about the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research

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