Looking back over the past year with the seventh edition of Global Prison Trends.
Penal Reform International (PRI) and the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) co-produce Global Prison Trends, an annual report that documents the key trends and challenges in prison systems around the world. Global Prison Trends 2021 flags the challenges faced by prisons over the past year, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prison populations and staff, and how prisons worldwide have responded to these challenges.
Tríona Lenihan works at PRI as Policy and International Advocacy Manager. Prison Insider asked her three questions.
Prisons in 118 countries were still operating above capacity, with 11 countries at over 250% capacity.
Prison Insider. The world prison population is still increasing despite COVID-19 exceptional releases in certain countries. What could reverse this trend?
Tríona Lenihan. The release schemes introduced in many countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic offered hope for immediate and sustainable reductions in the global prison population. A long overdue spotlight was put on the serious impact of overcrowding in prisons, especially in relation to health and hygiene. Large numbers of people were released from prisons in some countries, which raises the question of whether many of them needed to be in prison in the first place. Despite initial reductions in some national prison populations, overall implementation of releases was wholly inadequate to ease overcrowding in most places. When court processes resumed and prisons got to grips with new intake procedures, we also saw prison populations begin to increase again, losing the gains made in many places. Global Prison Trends 2021 reported that prisons in 118 countries were still operating above capacity, with 11 countries at over 250% capacity.
To reverse this trend, systemic reforms are needed to address harsh sentencing laws which result in the overuse of imprisonment. This includes punitive drug policies, the overuse of pre-trial detention, mandatory minimum sentences, short sentences for minor offences, the increasing use of longer sentences including life imprisonment, and the use of imprisonment in response to new COVID-19 related offences in some countries.
Alternatives to imprisonment must be prioritised, which focus on rehabilitation and avoiding any net-widening effect.
Also, the global female prison population continues to increase at a faster rate than the male prison population, with over 740,000 women and girls in prisons around the world. Targeted efforts are also needed to prioritise gender-sensitive, community-based responses for women in the criminal justice system.
To divert prisons from perpetual crisis, we need to send fewer people to prison.
PI. How does the COVID-19 crisis differ from other ongoing or future crises? Are prison environments doomed to be in perpetual crisis?
TL. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prisons globally were already in crisis – largely as a result of decades of under-resourcing. Low budgets, inadequate staffing, poor conditions and a growing number of people to provide for and supervise had left many prisons at the breaking point for too long. Prisons are not immune to health crises, conflict, or disasters that result from natural hazards or extreme weather. Their existing fragility is exposed when external crises hit.
Last year, Global Prison Trends 2020 reported that across 54 countries, government expenditures on prisons usually amounts to less than 0.3% of GDP. This year, we found staff to prisoner ratios vary from 1:1 to as much as 1:28 globally. Medical and mental healthcare staff are serving hundreds of prisoners in some cases, and vacancy rates are as high as 70% in some prison systems.
Without sufficient budget or staff, prisons cannot ensure the safety and security of those detained and prison staff, nor can they meet the healthcare, rehabilitation, and other needs of the prison population.
To divert prisons from perpetual crisis, we need to send fewer people to prison. We need to prioritise alternatives to imprisonment, ensure that only those who really need to be detained are in prison, and make sure prisons have adequate financial and human resources to meet the needs of the prison population. This includes addressing the impact of pandemic response measures on people in prison, including the impact on their mental health, now and in the longer term. Also, ensuring prisons have strategic and contingency plans in place to allow them to respond quickly and effectively to any future crisis.
Significant barriers remain in the collection and reporting of prison data, especially data that is disaggregated by age, sex, ethnicity, and other factors.
PI. The pandemic has made access to information more difficult than ever. How did PRI manage to obtain their data?
TL. PRI runs practical human rights-based programmes across a number of regions where we work closely with prison authorities, governments, civil society and criminal justice actors at all levels. Our policy and impact programmes also conduct regular research projects on various issues related to prison populations and management. Our research and data collected through our regional and policy programmes are supplemented by a combination of desk research and collaboration with an extensive network of partners across all world regions. The objective behind this method is to ensure truly global representation and findings. Official data is used wherever available, but significant barriers remain in the collection and reporting of prison data, especially data that is disaggregated by age, sex, ethnicity, and other factors. Some of these barriers are outlined in Global Prison Trends 2021, including lack of resources, practical difficulties, and lack of transparency in many places.
Penal Reform International, Thailand Institute of Justice, Global Prison Trends 2021: Special Focus - Prisons in Crises, May 2021. Read the report.