COVID-19 Pushes Global Prison Population to ‘Breaking Point’

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Photo by Meesh via Flickr

Prisons worldwide “are being pushed to the breaking point by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Penal Reform International (PRI).

Some 11 million people are in prison worldwide, with over 124 prisons exceeding their maximum occupancy rates–the highest number of imprisoned people ever recorded, and a 20 percent increase from when the world total was recorded in 2002, said PRI in its Global Prison Trends 2020 report.

“Almost half a million people are serving a formal life imprisonment sentence, with many more effectively serving life de facto,” said the report.

“Reform towards more proportionate sentences remains slow and several countries are looking to introduce life sentences, towing the ‘tough on crime’ line.”

Overcrowding clearly could not come at a worse time.

“The magnitude of issues and associated human rights violations stemming from over-imprisonment became clear in efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons,” according to the report.

The majority of those in the world’s prisons are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.  Twenty percent of the sentences are drug-related, said the report.

Of the global prison population, 700,000 are women, with 19,000 children living in prisons with their mothers.

“The United States has the highest absolute number of people in prison globally, with over 2.1 million people in prison at a rate of 655 people per 100,000 of the national population, yet rates of violent crime continue to fall,” according to the report.

The United States “witnessed a 700 percent imprisonment population increase since 1970, with a peak in 2009, and a small decline overall each year since then owing to reductions in some states and recently at the federal level.”

China has the second-highest prison population globally, with an estimated 1.7 million people.

The third highest is Brazil, where, based on figures from June 2019, the prison population approaches 760,000.

To read the full report, click here.

This summary was prepared by Deputy TCR Editor Nancy Bilyeau

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