The failure of global prison systems

Marianne Foody

One of the main issues we are seeing globally is overcrowding. Credit: Ye Jinghan

Prison systems across the globe are facing a crisis which is harming the health and welfare of prisoners as well as that of their families and society at large.

The reality in many prisons today tends to be far from international standards and furthermore begs the question; are prisons across the world achieving their goal of protecting society from crime?

‘’Imprisonment has become an almost automatic response rather than a last resort. Furthermore, the penitentiary system in most countries is no longer aimed at the reformation and social rehabilitation of convicts, but simply aims to punish by locking offenders away,” said Juan Mendez of the United Nations.

One of the main issues we are seeing globally is overcrowding. It is estimated that over 10.2 million people were held in penal institutions worldwide in 2013 with an average imprisonment rate of 144 prisoners per 100,000 of the world population.

In 2013, 114 national prison systems operated at an occupancy rate of over 100%, according to a report from the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD).

The report also stated: ‘’When penitentiary systems are over stretched and poorly managed, prisons run the risk of degenerating into dangerous places for both prisoners and prison staff.’’

The UNODC maintains that it will tackle the issue in three ways, by reducing the scope of imprisonment, improving prison conditions and supporting the social reintegration of offenders upon release.

A report from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) issued in 2017 has shown that despite popular opinion, a country’s crime rate does not dictate how many people are in prison; it actually comes down to a broad range of political, economic and social factors which are different in every country.

The ICPR report looked at several countries in-depth and made some revealing discoveries showing the leaders and laggards in the global Prison system:

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 have seen their 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.

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.

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.

Several human rights issues are stemming from the inhumane treatment of prisoners, in particular with regards healthcare.

In the U.S. and other prisons like Japan, solitary confinement still takes place and prisoners with physical and mental health issues continue to be ostracised.

In Japan, the number of people in solitary confinement for over 10 years increased by 50% between 2012-2016 and almost half of these individuals were mentally disabled.

In Texas, 25% of all U.S. prison suicides occurred in segregation cells – this is a staggering figure as Texas only holds 2.7% of the U.S. prison population.

In 2017, many prisons saw outbreaks of disease including in Sana Yemen, where a cholera outbreak began – the Red Cross estimate the epidemic reached 1 million people by December 2017.

A typhoid outbreak in early 2017 spread to two prisons in Zimbabwe and infected over 800 people.

There have been calls from the World Health Organization and many others for a re-evaluation of the global prison system.

Commenting on the ICPR report ago Jago Russell, Chief Executive of Fair Trials, said:

‘’This report offers an intriguing insight into the very different approaches countries take in terms of whom they imprison and why. With incarceration levels rising rapidly, making prisons dangerous, inhumane places for inmates and staff alike, it matters that we understand the many and varied factors at work here. This report provides a roadmap towards understanding what drives the over-use of imprisonment – and where solutions might lie.’’


Marianne Foody

Image Credit: Ye Jinghan