Prison overcrowding in Commonwealth countries

24 Jun 2022

As the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Kigali, Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme, calls for better data as a first step to ending chronic prison overcrowding.

This week, heads of government from across the Commonwealth have been meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. The CHOGM has come round again.

The delegates are considering a bewilderingly wide range of topics, including climate change, disease protection, economic recovery, and sustainable fashion, all under the theme ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, innovating, transforming.’

One of the Commonwealth’s key roles is promoting respect for human rights among its member states, which are home to around 2.5 billion people living in 54 countries.  In their efforts to ensure human rights are not overlooked at this year’s CHOGM, our friends at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative have been drawing attention to some of the key human rights challenges facing Commonwealth countries.

To this end, they have published a report on pre-trial imprisonment, which draws on our World Prison Brief data on prisoner numbers in this group of countries. They have also released several ‘expert insight’ blogs. My contribution to the series highlights the disturbingly high rates of prison overcrowding across the Commonwealth. I argue that too little attention is paid to one of the major causes of overcrowding in the Commonwealth – the misuse of pre-trial detention.

In fact, the figures in my blog are almost certainly an under-estimate, meaning the real extent of prison overcrowding in this group of nations is worse than the available data suggest.

Lack of prisons data leaves Commonwealth citizens unprotected

As compilers and hosts of the World Prison Brief, we contend with a serious, long-standing lack of adequate prisons data for most Commonwealth countries.

Only eleven member countries publish prisons data annually or more frequently. (Of those eleven, two produce data that is one or two years in arrears.) The other 43 Commonwealth states do not publish any official prisons data. For those countries, we glean what we can from sporadic news articles, NGO reports, or information submitted to UN bodies or similar agencies.

More often than not, prison populations data published in Commonwealth states do not disaggregate categories of prisoner, leaving us unclear about what proportion of a country’s prisoners are pre-trial or sentenced, female or male, or juvenile or adult. 

The Commonwealth Secretariat could promote better practice here, helping build capacity in member countries to collect and regularly publish data on prisoner numbers. This would make a meaningful contribution to promoting human rights protection. It would also foster greater transparency and accountability in an area where rights violations are routinely under-reported.

As matters stand, this data void leaves millions of Commonwealth citizens in the dark about how overcrowded their country’s prisons are, or what proportion of their prisoners are untried/unsentenced. This has major implications for public health and crime prevention, so it should be a concern for everyone.