Global Prison Population Up 25 Percent Since 2000

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Illustration courtesy UNODC.

A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on long-term imprisonment trends found that the number of prisoners worldwide has increased by more than 25 percent between 2000 and 2019, while the population grew about 21 percent during the same period.

By the end of 2019, there were about 11.7 million people incarcerated globally.

The data also found that one in every three prisoners worldwide are held without trial, despite prisoners being at an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Over the past two decades, the global share of unsentenced detainees has not changed much, ranging from 29 to 31 percent suggesting that little progress has been made in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal on access to justice.

Additionally, about half of all countries’ prison systems are operating at over 100 percent capacity leaving prisoners in extremely overcrowded spaces.

About one in five countries are operating at over 150 percent capacity.

The report estimated that about 550,000 prisoners across 122 countries became infected with the coronavirus, as of May 2021. It also estimated there were about 4,000 prisoner deaths due to the virus across 47 countries.

In response to this, about 700,000 prisoners worldwide, roughly 6 percent of the prison population, were authorized for release under emergency release mechanisms.

Prisons worldwide also limited prisoner interaction, recreation and visitation in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Who is Imprisoned and Where?

The report found that by the end of 2019 there were about 152 prisoners for every 100,000 persons worldwide. This does not mark a significant variance from 2000 when the rate was 151 prisoners per 100,000 people worldwide.

However, there has been considerable sub-regional variation.

A larger share of the prison population is imprisoned in Northern America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe compared to Sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia and Southern Asia.

Imprisonment rates in Northern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe have seen long-term decreases by up to 27 percent since 2000.

Latin America, Australia and New Zealand have seen an increase in their prison population by about 68 percent since 2000.

Some 93 percent of prisoners worldwide are men, however, the number of women in prison is increasing at a rate of 33 percent compared to an increase of 25 percent of men since 2000.

Europe marked the largest increase in female prisoners from 4.2 percent in 2000 to 6.5 percent in 2019. The report attributed this growth to a fast decline in male prisoners compared to female in Eastern European countries.

Policy Implications

 The report suggests in order to curb the use of pre-trial detention and imprisonment and to relieve overcrowding, countries should ensure alternatives to imprisonment are available and sustainable and should focus on implementing evidence-based approaches for crime prevention.

In addition, the report recommends providing quick access to trial for those being held in pre-trial detention, as well as improving case management and the capacity of prosecution services.

Steps can be taken to counteract the rising number of female prisoners by accounting for the fact that many females convicted of crimes have also been victims of crimes, themselves, and taking mitigating factors into consideration.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Blake Diaz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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