Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A World of Prisons

If you want to know how many people are in prison in the Seychelles, your luck is in. Today sees the latest edition of the World Prison Population List compiled by Roy Walmsley. Roy started to produce the essential resource when he worked in the Home Office. The UK government decided to stop publishing it in the early 2000’s, embarrassed perhaps that England and Wales sat consistently at the top of the European section of the league table. The List (and the World Prison Brief the database upon which it’s based) then found a home at the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) . Today’s eleventh edition is published by the Institute of Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck College where ICPS moved last year and where the data continues to be collated by Roy along with Helen Fair.

This year’s list contains detailed information about how 10.35 million prisoners are distributed among  223 prison systems, and the the rate of imprisonment per 100,000 of the general population in each country- essential for making comparisons between states of different sizes. For the first time trend data is included showing how prison numbers and rates have changed over the last 15 years.

Looking through the information three points struck me.  Surprisingly perhaps, the continent which has seen the sharpest increase in imprisonment is Oceania, dominated by Australia, whose prison population rose by 66% between 2000 and 2015, and New Zealand whose total rose by 56%. And while the USA is by some way the leading user of prison among large countries, its rate of incarceration at 698 per 100,000 is not much greater than in 2000 when it was 683. It is South rather than North American countries that have seen enormous rises with prison numbers and rates more than doubling in Brazil, Peru and Venezuela for example.

The second striking fact is that the world’s poorest nations generally have very low rates of imprisonment ; none of the 12 countries with the lowest GDP per head lock up more than 100 per 100,000 of their people, most much fewer.The rates are 16 in the Central African Republic, 26 in Guinea and 61 in Mozambique for example.

But what happens when countries grow richer? Is a rise in the use of imprisonment inevitable along the lines of Brazil? Not always it seems. Of the so-called MINT emerging economies, Mexico, Indonesia and particularly Turkey have seen very large rises while Nigeria like India and Pakistan have kept rates very low.  The Asian Tiger economies appear to have seen economic and prison growth in tandem although China (where data is incomplete) seems to have kept their use of prison stable.

Finally there are some notable examples of falls in the use and rate of imprisonment in almost all parts of the world. Countries whose rates of imprisonment are lower now than 15 years ago include Canada, South Africa, Germany and spectacularly Russia where there are 650,000 in prison compared to more than a million in 2000. In some of the countries in this group, there are specific explanations – such as Rwanda where the effects of sentencing after the genocide have started to wear off. But in other countries a complex web of factors is likely to be at play- some political some technical -but something  well worth examining in detail. There are almost certainly lessons to consider and apply, not least in England and Wales where 86,000 people are currently in prison compared to 65,000 at the turn of the century..

The List provides the raw material with which to undertake that analysis.  It is an invaluable source of knowledge for which we should be immensely grateful. By the way the answer for the Seychelles is 735 prisoners- but with a population of 92,000 the islands' rate of imprisonment at 799 per 100,000 is the world’s highest.

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