Some 11.5 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, according to the latest edition of the World Prison Population List (WPPL), researched and compiled by Helen Fair and Roy Walmsley and published on 1 December 2021 by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR), at Birkbeck, University of London.
The List can be downloaded here.
According to published prison population numbers, the total worldwide prison population stands at 10.77 million. However, the total may well be in excess of 11.5 million if numbers estimated to be held in detention centres in China and in prisons camps in North Korea are included.
There are more than 2 million prisoners in the United States of America. China holds almost 1.7 million prisoners (plus an unknown number in pre-trial detention and other forms of detention). Brazil has over 800,000 prisoners, India almost 480,000, and the Russian Federation over 470,000. There are over 300,000 in Thailand, over 290,000 in Turkey, over 265,000 in Indonesia and over 220,000 in Mexico.
The countries with the highest prison population rates – the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the general population – are the United States (629 per 100,000), followed by Rwanda (580), Turkmenistan (576), El Salvador (564) and Cuba (510). By contrast, more than half of all countries and territories (53%) have rates below 150 per 100,000.
The world prison population rate, based on United Nations estimates of national population levels, is 140 per 100,000.
Prison population rates vary considerably between different regions of the world, and between different parts of the same continent. For example:
- in Africa: the median prison population rate for western African countries is 44.5 whereas for southern African countries it is 248;
- in the Americas: the median rate for north American countries is 212.5 whereas for central American countries it is 278;
- in Asia: the median rate for the countries of southern Asia is 85 whereas for the countries of south-eastern Asia it is 171;
- in Europe: the median rate for western European countries is 73 whereas for the countries spanning Europe and Asia (e.g. Russia and Turkey) it is 253;
- in Oceania: the median rate is 166.5.
In much of the world, prisoner numbers are rising – steeply in some regions. Since 2000, the total prison population of South America has tripled in size (an increase of 200%), while that of south-eastern Asia has more than doubled (an increase of 116%), and Oceania’s has almost doubled (an increase of 82%).
While the United States’ latest rate of 629 prisoners per 100,000 of the general population remains the highest in the world, it represents a substantial fall from its peak of over 750 in the 2000s. By contrast, since 2000 the total prison population in the rest of the Americas has risen by 138%.
Europe is the one continent where the total prison population has decreased since the year 2000 (by 27%). This reflects large falls in prison populations in Russia (56%) and also in central and eastern Europe (49%); the prison population in Europe, excluding Russia, has increased by 5%.
In many countries, prisoner numbers fell in the second quarter of 2020, due to various factors linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, although it is too early to tell whether decreases seen in 2020-2021 will be sustained. For example, the number of prisoners in South Africa fell from 155,000 to 141,000 in the year from March 2020 to March 2021. In England and Wales, the prison population fell from 84,000 in February 2020 to 79,000 at the beginning of October 2021. Further discussion of the impact of the pandemic on prison population numbers can be found in our recent report Keeping COVID out of Prisons: Approaches in Ten Countries.
Co-author of the World Prison Population List, Helen Fair, comments:
It is concerning that, in the face of an ongoing global health crisis, the number of prisoners worldwide continues to rise overall, despite efforts in many countries to reduce prisoner numbers in 2020. Policy-makers now need to redouble their efforts to limit the numbers in custody, given the disputed efficacy of imprisonment and the severe health risks presented by prison overcrowding, which remains widespread.
Director of the ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, Catherine Heard, comments:
The pandemic has shown us that prison health is public health – overcrowded, unhealthy prison conditions are dangerous, not only for prisoners and prison staff, but also for communities and wider society. But where there is a political will, prisoner numbers can be reduced, as they were in their thousands in some countries in 2020-2021. As these latest data show, there is no cause for complacency – countries must go further to end their over-reliance on imprisonment.
Helen Fair, co-author of the World Prison Population List – 07824 999028
Catherine Heard, Director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme – 07920 760395
- The World Prison Population List
The World Prison Population List is researched and compiled by Helen Fair and Roy Walmsley and published by the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR). The List shows the number of people held in penal institutions in 223 prison systems in independent countries and dependent territories. The figures include both pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners and those who have been convicted and sentenced. Helen Fair is a Research Fellow at ICPR and a researcher on the World Prison Brief. Roy Walmsley is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at ICPR. He founded the World Prison Brief and the World Prison Population List, along with the complementary lists on female imprisonment, the fourth edition of which was published in November 2017, and pre-trial/remand imprisonment, the fourth edition of which was published in April 2020.
The World Prison Population List, the World Female Imprisonment List and the World Pre-trial/Remand Imprisonment List all complement the information held on the World Prison Brief – the unique and internationally renowned online database on prisons and the use of imprisonment around the world – which can be found at www.prisonstudies.org/world-prison-brief. The World Prison Brief provides details on the prison systems of 226 independent countries and dependent territories. The data include, to the extent available, the total number of prisoners held; the prison population per 100,000 of the national population in each jurisdiction; proportions of women, pre-trial, foreign national and juvenile prisoners; occupancy levels and prison population trends.
- The Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research (ICPR)
The Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research is based in the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London. It undertakes academically-grounded, policy-oriented research into all aspects of the criminal justice system. ICPR produces work for a range of audiences including policy-makers and their advisers, and criminal justice practitioners, academics, and the wider public. ICPR’s prisons research is conducted under its World Prison Research Programme. Read more about the Programme at https://www.icpr.org.uk/theme/prisons-and-use-imprisonment
3. Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London, is a world-class research and teaching institution, a vibrant centre of academic excellence and London’s only specialist provider of evening higher education. Ranked 30th in the UK for its research, 73% of Birkbeck’s research was rated ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’ in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Birkbeck also scored highly for its research environment and for the impact of its research beyond academia. Read more about research at Birkbeck at www.bbk.ac.uk/research.