Global incarceration, prison capacity growing at ‘alarming rate’

Mississippi State Penitentiary, photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Health.

Around the world, countries are increasing their prison capacity at “an alarming rate of expansion” – despite widespread calls for reductions in prison populations around the world, according to a report by Penal Reform International (PRI) published on Wednesday.

The eighth annual report of Global prison trends, co-sponsored by the Thai Institute of Justice, says the prison population is “at an all-time high”, with 11.5 million people imprisoned today. This represents an increase of nearly 25% over the past two decades.

The report highlights that 121 countries have attempted to accommodate this growing population by expanding their facilities by more than 100%. Some 13 countries have had to resort to an expansion of more than 250% just to cope with the flow of people.

Seen from another angle, 24 countries have built a total of 437,000 new prison buildings – often larger and further away than existing ones. Governments point to prison overcrowding as the main reason for investing in new facilities.

To that end, experience and studies tell us that building new prisons is “not a long-term solution to overcrowding”. Yet this expansion is happening anyway, the researchers note.

“With prison overcrowding affecting every corner of the world, it is clear that no government can solve this problem,” he added. Olivia Ropethe executive director of Penal Reform International, said of the report’s findings.

Rope continued: “The human rights of people living in cramped conditions are further threatened with the combination of increasing violent conflict, the impacts of climate change with disastrous natural hazards and extreme temperatures coinciding with the global COVID-19 pandemic. In progress.”

Key facts and figures

Since the year 2000, this population has increased by 24% worldwide, with the greatest growth peaks in South America (200% increase), the Pacific Islands (82% increase) and North America. center (77% increase), details the full report.

With that, the only region listed to have decreased its prison population was Europe, which saw a 27% drop since 2000.

Globally, researchers have found five “key drivers of imprisonment” that send individuals behind bars around the world. The most common imprisoning factors are punitive drug policiesresponsible for approximately 2.2 million incarcerations.

Other factors include: discriminatory laws that target poor and marginalized communities; extreme sentences that result in long sentences or life sentences; the continuation of the Covid-19 pandemic, where many “decongestion” release methods have ended and people remain incarcerated; and finally, underuse of alternatives to incarceration where the focus has been on punishment rather than rehabilitation on a global scale.

Vulnerable prison populations

There is a staggering increase in the incarceration of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, the elderly, children and women, the data details.

“The increase in the number of women, children and other groups in prisons, such as ethnic minorities, are all trends that must be reversed urgently,” Phiset Sa-ardyenexecutive director of the Thai Institute of Justice, said.

The number of women incarcerated worldwide has increased by 33% over the past 20 years, which is a higher growth rate than the male prison population, which has increased by 25%.

Regarding rates of children incarcerated, it is estimated that approximately 261,200 children are detained worldwide, with the highest child detention rate in North America (137 per 100,000), followed by the Latin America and the Caribbean (77 per 100,000) where the highest number of children are detained (50,300), details the report.

In terms of Indigenous populations, Indigenous women make up 60% of female prison populations in New Zealand and 48% in Canada.

Race and ethnicity was also a factor explored by the researchers, to which they found a “disproportionate presence of Africans and people of African descent in prison populations, referencing reports from Brazil, Colombia, from Ecuador, Italy, Portugal and the United States”.

Water and sanitation

“Prison overcrowding and a lack of resources and infrastructure have led to a severe shortage of water in many prisons for drinking, preparing food and for sanitation,” the report details, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic and outbreaks of other infectious diseases have impacted the quality of the water supply.

In Mexico, 60% of prisoners with access to water say it is not safe to drink due to contamination with toxins and sewage.

In the past three years in the United States, prison water in Texas has been contaminated with arsenic, and prison water systems in Arizona have been contaminated with petroleum from a gas station. neighbor.

In Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, women were forced to use buckets for human waste, which they then had to clean up manually. Similarly, in Iran, prisons note that there are only 5 toilets and 3 showers available for almost 300 women.

Additionally, in Insein Prison in Myanmar, people developed rashes and sores where they were forced to use dirty water to wash themselves due to overcrowding.

Overall, the researchers emphasize that all of these risks and disasters are at the forefront of global attention – and that inhumane conditions and treatment must be reversed.

“Increasing prison capacity is not a viable long-term solution to reducing overcrowding and the devastating consequences of imprisonment,” the report said.

The eighth annual edition of Global prison trends can be viewed here.

Andrea Cipriano is associate editor of The Crime Report.