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Prison Populations Worldwide

There are more than 10.35 million people held in prisons across the world today, either as pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners or having been convicted and sentenced, according to the eleventh edition of the World Prison Population List, researched and compiled by Roy Walmsley, Director of the World Prison Brief. The most recent version of the List was published on February 3, 2016 by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London (ICPR). It complements the data held in ICPR’s World Prison Brief online database.

The World Prison Population List provides details on the numbers of prisoners held in the prison systems of 223 independent countries and dependent territories. Most of the information derives from the national prison administration of the country concerned or the Ministry responsible for the prison administration. There are some gaps in the data: figures for Eritrea, Somalia and the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea are not available and the figures for China are incomplete. Also missing are the numbers of prisoners held under authorities not recognised internationally and those pre-trial prisoners who are held in police facilities and not included in official national prison population totals. The full number of prisoners worldwide is therefore higher than 10.35 million and may well be in excess of 11 million.

There are more than 2.2 million prisoners in the United States; more than 1.65 million in China (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention or “administrative detention”); 640,000 in the Russian Federation; 607,000 in Brazil; and 418,000 in India. The prison population rate of any given jurisdiction is the number of prisoners held per 100,000 of the national population, and is therefore a better basis of comparison between countries. The country with the world’s highest prison population rate is currently Seychelles (a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean), at 799 per 100,000; this is followed by the United States with a rate of 698. Other countries with high prison population rates include Turkmenistan (583), Cuba (510), El Salvador (492) and Thailand (461). By contrast, more than half of all countries and territories (55%) have a prison population rate under 150.

Since about 2000 the world prison population total has grown by almost 20%, which is slightly above the estimated 18% increase in the world’s general population over the same period. There are considerable differences in prison population trends both between and within continents. The total prison population in Oceania has increased by almost 60%, and that in the Americas by over 40%; in Europe, by contrast, the total prison population has decreased by 21%. The European figure reflects large decreases in prison populations in Russia and in Central and Eastern Europe. In the Americas, the prison population has increased by 14% in the U.S., by over 80% in Central American countries and by 145% in South American countries.

Women in prison make up a small proportion – 6.8% – of all prisoners. However, numbers of female prisoners are rising rapidly: the worldwide female prison population total has increased by 50% since about 2000, compared to an 18% rise in the number of male prisoners. The female total has increased proportionately more than the male total in every continent, but is most marked in Oceania (100% increase in female prisoner numbers) and Asia (84% increase).

Dr Jessica Jacobson is co-director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, which is based in the School of Law of Birkbeck, University of London. She provided this summary of the data in the most recent edition of the World Prison Population List exclusively for PLN.

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