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Global prison population soars

Prison populations continue to soar in much of the world, a new report published by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research shows.

Over 11 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 on 6 November 2018 by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London.

Based on published prison population numbers the total worldwide prison population stands at 10.74 million. However, the total is well in excess of 11 million if numbers estimated to be held in detention centres in China and in prisons camps in North Korea are included.

There are more than 2.1 million prisoners in the United States of America. China holds almost 1.7 million prisoners (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention). Brazil has almost 700,000 prisoners, the Russian Federation almost 600,000, and there are around 400,000 prisoners in both India and Thailand. Indonesia, Turkey and Iran each have around a quarter of a million prisoners.

The countries with the highest prison population rate – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the general population – are the United States (655 per 100,000), followed by El Salvador (604), Turkmenistan (552), Thailand (526) and Cuba (510).

In much of the world, prisoner numbers are rising steeply.  Since 2000, the total prison population of South America has almost tripled in size (an increase of 175%), while south-eastern Asia’s total prison population has more than doubled (an increase of 122%), and Oceania’s has almost doubled (an increase of 86%).

Over the three years since the last edition of the World Prison Population List was published, the divergence in prison population trends has been notable. The following are among the countries which have shown the sharpest increase in prison population rate:

  • Cambodia (68% increase in prisoners per 100,000 of general population)
  • Nicaragua (61%)
  • Egypt (53%)
  • Philippines (48%)
  • Indonesia (45% )
  • Ecuador (37%)
  • Jordan (31%)
  • Turkey (31%).

The same period has seen significant falls in prison population rate in Mexico (23%), Romania (22%), Kazakhstan (21%), Ukraine (19%), Japan (15%), Vietnam (11%) and the Russian Federation (10%). While the United States’ latest published figure of 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population remains the highest in the world, it represents a substantial fall from its peak of over 750 in the late 2000s.

The net result of these divergent trends is a world in which the rate of increase in the known total prison population (3.7%) continues to exceed the increase in the general population (3.0%).  This is also a world with vast disparities in prison population rates; for example:

  • in Africa: the median prison population rate for western African countries is 53 whereas for southern African countries it is 244;
  • in the Americas: the median rate for south American countries is 233 whereas for central American countries it is 316;
  • in Asia: the median rate for countries in southern Asia (mainly the Indian sub-continent) is 88 whereas for central Asian countries it is 160.5;
  • In Europe: the median rate for western European countries is 81 whereas for the countries spanning Europe and Asia (e.g. Russia and Turkey) it is 268;
  • in Oceania: the median rate is 182.5.                      

England and Wales’ prison population rate, at 140, remains much higher than that of its European neighbours such as Ireland (78), France (100), the Netherlands (61), Germany (75), Italy (98) and Spain (126).

Compiler of the World Prison Population List, Roy Walmsley, comments: “It is of great concern that there are now well over 11 million people held in penal institutions throughout the world. What is of greater concern is that prison populations continue to rise 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.”

Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, Catherine Heard, said: “Prison has a poor track record of reducing reoffending or equipping people for a worthwhile life on release. As our World Prison Brief data show, many of the countries where prisoner numbers have grown fastest in recent years also have some of the worst levels of overcrowding. We shouldn’t be surprised when overcrowded, under-resourced prisons produce violence, despair, and more crime.”

ICPR Director, Dr Jessica Jacobson, said: “The widely divergent trends in patterns of imprisonment around the world show there is nothing inevitable about prison population growth. Many factors determine the extent to which a country incarcerates its people; but where there is political will to curb the use of imprisonment, this can be achieved.”

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