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The Ten Country Prisons Project

‘Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries’ is a project being conducted under the ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme.

This is a photo of a person behind a prison fence

(Updated June 2021)

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. Covid-19 has brought the public health risks of over-incarceration into sharper relief.

Since 2016 the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) – based at Birkbeck’s School of Law - has, through its World Prison Research Programme, been capitalising on this growing awareness of the need to reduce reliance on imprisonment. In its policy-oriented, comparative research, 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 have been 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, we work 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 quantitative data for the project comes from our own unique World Prison Brief database, which has been sourcing, compiling and publishing data on world prison populations since 2000. The countries studied in the project are:

  • Kenya
  • Brazil
  • India
  • England and Wales
  • The Netherlands
  • South Africa
  • USA (special focus on New York State)
  • Thailand
  • Hungary
  • Australia (special focus on New South Wales).

Our project publications give an overview of imprisonment in the ten countries, describe problems with the over-use of pre-trial detention and report on sentencing policy and practice and  prisoners’ health and healthcare in the 10 countries.

We have also blogged on our research, including for example: on Prison overcrowding and the risks for public health: a global time-bomb? for the NGO Fair Trials; 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 impact of COVID-19 in prisons

From March 2020, the focus shifted to the measures being taken by prisons around the world to contain the risk of COVID-19 spreading within and beyond their walls, and how they impacted prisoners’ daily lives. With our research partner, Prison Insider, we conducted desk research and interviewed expert informants - that is, individuals working in academia or in human rights and penal reform organisations who had specialist knowledge of prisons. Interviews were also undertaken with over 80 prisoners, ex-prisoners and their loved ones, to compare life in custody before and during the pandemic. The resulting reports – Locked in and locked down - prison life in a pandemic: Evidence from ten countries and Keeping COVID out of prisons: Approaches in ten countries were published in May 2021.

ICPR’s ten-country prisons project web pages – accessible via the World Prison Brief website - contain a wealth of material on all the above themes. They also contain over 20 specially commissioned ‘expert insight’ articles and short videos, published on the website, featuring the work and lived experience of leading thinkers in the field.

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

Principal InvestigatorCatherine HeardCo-InvestigatorsProfessor Jessica Jacobson and Helen Fair (ICPR)

Further Information

Read more about the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research

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