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Global partnership devises strategies to combat the over-use of imprisonment worldwide

A three-year project at Birkbeck has reviewed the use of imprisonment worldwide and identified key priorities for change.

Many prison systems around the world are in crisis, due to unprecedented growth in prison populations in recent decades with little increase in the resourcing of prison systems. 

To map out an alternative to endlessly rising prison populations and identify the most promising areas for reform, the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck embarked on a three-year international research and policy project in 2018, in collaboration with expert practitioners and reformers worldwide. In the final phase of the project, ICPR partnered with Prison Insider to explore the impacts of COVID-19 on prisoners’ daily lives, and on prisoner numbers, which have reduced to some extent in the course of the project.

The project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries (or the 'Ten-country prisons project'), examined the use of imprisonment in ten contrasting jurisdictions across five continents, namely Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the USA, India, Thailand, England and Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia.

The research findings are showcased on project web pages containing a wealth of material on recent patterns and trends in imprisonment; pre-trial decision-making in law and in practice; international disparities in sentencing; prison overcrowding and its consequences for health and healthcare; and COVID-19 and its impact in prisons. Additionally, over 20 specially commissioned expert insight articles and short videos dealing with specific aspects of over-incarceration were published on the World Prison Brief website throughout June.

The research team will continue to work with key stakeholders at national and international levels, to share the research findings and devise strategies for change.

Catherine Heard, Senior Research Fellow at ICPR and Director of the World Prison Research Programme, commented: “Harsher sentences and over-use of pre-trial detention are among the root causes of prison overcrowding, which now affects two thirds of countries worldwide. The pandemic has amplified the public health risks of over-imprisonment. It has also led to some reductions in prisoner numbers. If these reductions are to be sustained, we need clear and explicit political commitment to reducing reliance on custody, together with targeted action.”

Florence Laufer, Director of Prison Insider, added:

“By their nature, prisons are largely hidden from public view – and even more so during a pandemic. The need for rigorous and accessible information about imprisonment is thus greater than ever. This unique collaboration between ICPR and Prison Insider combines hard data with personal accounts, to place lived experience at the centre of our understanding of imprisonment. If policy and practice are to evolve, their impacts must be documented: the ten-country prisons research provides a strong evidence base for change.”

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