The use and over-use of prison.

27 Mar 2017

Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world describes patterns and trends in imprisonment in ten contrasting countries across all five continents. Each of the ten countries has a different story to tell about its use of imprisonment.

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The report, by Jessica Jacobson, Catherine Heard and Helen Fair, draws on ICPR’s unique World Prison Brief database and highlights the following key findings:

  • The United States has around one-fifth of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population more than quadrupled from around half a million in 1980 to a peak of over 2.3 million in 2008.
  • Brazil has seen prisoner numbers increase twenty-fold from around 30,000 in 1973 to over 600,000 today. Many prisons are under gang control. Riots, extreme violence and massacres are regularly reported.
  • England and Wales has seen its prison population more than double since 1975. Incidents of violence, suicide and self-harm are at a record high and there were four prison riots in 2016.
  • In Hungary, tough-on-crime measures have reversed prior declines in prisoner numbers, which are now reaching levels not seen since the mid-1980s. Use of imprisonment for minor offences has increased. Roma and Gypsy people are over-represented in criminal justice statistics.
  • The Netherlands has achieved a sustained reduction in imprisonment: Dutch prisoner numbers have fallen steadily since 2005, when they were among the highest in Western Europe.
  • In India, the prison population rate is relatively low, but its prisons are severely overcrowded. Almost 70% of inmates are ‘undertrials’ – pre-trial or remand detainees awaiting final decisions in their cases.
  • Thailand has seen its prison population surge, largely as a result of a highly punitive approach to drug offences. This has affected women in particular: over 80% of sentenced female prisoners are convicted of drug offences.
  • In Kenya, prisons are operating at over twice their capacity. TB, scabies and other medical problems are common. Imprisonment for relatively minor crimes and excessive use of pre-trial detention contribute to overcrowding.
  • South Africa’s prisons are also severely overcrowded, partly because of the 3,000% rise in the number of prisoners serving life sentences between 1995 and 2014.
  • In Australia, increasingly punitive policies have driven up prisoner numbers. Australia followed the USA’s example of mandatory minimum sentences. Indigenous people represent over a quarter of adult prisoners while making up around 2% of all adult Australians.

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