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Global Prison Trends 2018

15th May 2018

Global Prison Trends 2018 is the fourth edition in Penal Reform International’s annual series, published in collaboration with the Thailand Institute of Justice. The report explores trends in the use of imprisonment; prison populations; developments and challenges in prison management; the role of technology in criminal justice and prison systems; and the expansion of prison alternatives. Key points from the report are summarised below.

While overall crime rates around the world have declined, the number of people in prison on any given day is rising. Between 2000 and 2015, prison populations increased by almost 20%. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research estimates that there were over 10.35 million prisoners living in prisons around the world in 2016, either in pre-trial detention or having been convicted and sentenced.

There are diverging trends in the use of imprisonment at the regional level. Between 2000 and 2015, the total prison population increased by almost 60% in Oceania and by over 40% in the Americas (14% in the US, 80% in Central American countries, and 145% in South American countries). By contrast, the use of imprisonment in Europe decreased by 21% during the same period.

Between 2000 and 2017, the number of women and girls in prison worldwide increased by 53%. There are now more than 714,000 women and girls in prison globally. Although the female prison population is rising, women and girls still remain a small minority, constituting 6.9% of the global prison population. Women and girls make up 8.4% of the total prison population in the Americas; 7.4% in Oceania; 6.7% in Asia; and 6.1% in Europe. In Africa, the proportion – at 3.4% – is much lower than elsewhere. The US, China, Russia and Brazil hold the highest number of women and girls in detention. Proportionally the highest female prison population is in Hong Kong (at 20.8% of the total prison population), where the majority of women prisoners are foreign nationals sentenced for drug-related offences (as drug ‘mules’) or immigration violations. Women are frequently imprisoned for non-violent minor offences committed in the context of poverty and discrimination, and they have often been victims of violence themselves.

Levels of severity in sentencing vary considerably between countries, and identifying trends in the proportionality and length of sentences is not straightforward. However, available data suggests that prison sentences are getting longer generally, particularly for serious offences. Wide variation has also been observed in sentencing practice between courts and individual judges. In Ireland, for example, an analysis of sentencing in Ireland for burglary revealed that offenders are far less likely to receive a custodial sentence in Limerick than in Dublin.

Solitary confinement is defined by the Nelson Mandela Rules as the “confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact”. Solitary confinement continues to be used across the globe – including for vulnerable groups such as prisoners with disabilities and children – in contravention of international standards. This is despite increasing recognition of its detrimental psychological and physiological effects, and of the economic costs. Global Prison Trends 2018 cites a recently published report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust entitled ‘Behind the door’: Solitary confinement in the Irish Penal System.  This report notes that solitary confinement cells cost three times as much to run as ordinary prison cells. It also highlights that the number of prisoners in Ireland on 22- and 23-hour ‘restricted regimes’ decreased from 211 in July 2013 to nine in October 2017. Factors in this shift included an amendment to the Irish Prison Rules, entitling all prisoners to two hours out-of-cell time, with opportunity for meaningful human contact, as well as the introduction of a policy on the elimination of solitary confinement by the Irish Prison Service.

Overall, the use of non-custodial measures and sanctions has expanded in recent years, particularly for low-level offending. This expansion has been driven by the recognition of the importance of alternatives to prison in reducing overcrowding and their effectiveness in rehabilitating offenders, particularly those who are convicted of non-violent and low-level drug-related offences. In Ireland, there was a drop of almost 40% in the numbers of people being sent to prison in 2017. This was nearly entirely caused by the introduction of non-custodial sanctions for non-payment of court-ordered fines.

While there is no reliable data on the use of community sanctions at a global level, evidence shows that there is not necessarily a correlation between increasing community sanctions and reducing prison population rates. For example,in almost all jurisdictions in Europe, the number of people under some form of supervision has grown significantly in recent years. However, research found that of 29 European countries, 17 have more people under supervision than in prison, and that the increase has not led to a reduction in prison populations. Furthermore, in some countries, offenders are sent to prison for breach of the terms of their non-custodial sanction, rather than for reoffending.

For more on the work of Penal Reform International (PRI) and to read previous Global Prison Trends, visit their website here.

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