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Prison populations continue to rise in many parts of the world, with 11.5 million held in prisons worldwide

The 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.

Barbed wire fence surrounding a prison

Approximately 11.5 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, according to the latest edition of the World Prison Population List, compiled by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London.

According to published prison population numbers, the total worldwide prison population stands at 10.99 million. However, the total is likely to be in excess of 11.5 million if numbers estimated to be held in detention centres in China and in prisons camps in North Korea are included.

The world prison population rate, based on United Nations estimates of national population levels, is 140 per 100,000.

There are nearly 1.8 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 840,000 prisoners, India 573,000, and the Russian Federation over 433,000. There are over 314,000 in Turkey, over 274,000 in Thailand, over 265,000 in Indonesia and almost 233,000 in Mexico. England and Wales has nearly 88,000 prisoners, Scotland nearly 8,000 and Northern Ireland nearly 2,000.

The countries with the highest prison population rates – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the general population – are El Salvador (1,086 per 100,000), followed by Cuba (794), Rwanda (637), Turkmenistan (576), American Samoa (538), the United States (531) and Tonga (516). By contrast, just under half of all countries and territories (49%) have rates below 150 per 100,000.

Helen Fair, co-author of the World Prison Population List and Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, 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."

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 50 whereas for southern African countries it is 243;
• in the Americas, the median rate for north American countries is 220.5 whereas for central American countries it is 310.5;
• in Asia, the median rate for countries in southern Asia (mainly the Indian sub-continent) is 90 whereas for the countries of south-eastern Asia it is 166;
• in Europe, the median rate for western European countries is 73 whereas for the countries spanning Europe and Asia (e.g. the Russian Federation and Turkey) it is 267;
• in Oceania, the median rate is 184.5.

In much of the world, prisoner numbers are rising – steeply in some regions. Since 2000, the total prison population of South America has more than tripled in size (an increase of 224%), while that of western Asia has more than doubled (an increase of 141%), and Oceania's has almost doubled (an increase of 84%).

While the United States' latest rate of 531 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population remains among the highest in the world, it represents a substantial fall from its peak of over 750 in the 2000s, with over half a million fewer people in prison than in 2006-08. Since 2000 the total prison population in the rest of the Americas has risen by 161%.

Europe is the one continent where the total prison population has decreased since the year 2000 – by 26%. This reflects large falls in prison populations in Russia (59%) and also in central and eastern Europe (48%). The prison population in Europe, excluding Russia, has increased by 12%.

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