The Use and Abuse of Prison around the World

By Coyle, Andrew | Corrections Today, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Use and Abuse of Prison around the World


Coyle, Andrew, Corrections Today


Throughout the world, there are nearly 9 million people in prison, (1) with almost half of them in three countries: China, Russia and the United States. The rate at which countries make use of prison varies widely across the world and sometimes within regions. Prison rates are usually quoted per 100,000 of the total population and, on that basis, the average rate of imprisonment in the world is about 140. The country with the lowest rate of imprisonment in the world is the African nation Burkina Faso, at 23 (2,800 inmates for a population of 12.2 million people), while the country with the highest rate is the United States, at 715 (2.1 million inmates for 290 million people). Between these two extremes there is a wide spectrum. At the lower end, India, the largest democracy in the world, has a rate of only 29 per 100,000, Indonesia has 38 and Japan has 60. Also below the world average are Norway with a rate of 64 and Canada with 116. Moving along the spectrum, Mexico has a rate of 169, Poland's is 210, Thailand's is 340 and South Africa's is 402. There are only seven countries in the world with imprisonment rates above 500. The Cayman Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Palau, Bermuda, Belarus and Russia all have rates between 500 and 600, while the United States is the only country above 700.

What causes these disparities among countries and their prison use? How can it be explained, for example, that the rate of imprisonment in France is 95 per 100,000, while that of its neighbor, Spain, is 145? Why does Canada have an incarceration rate that is more than six times less than its neighbor, the United States? An interesting answer to this question was provided by the leaders of the prison administrations of the 45 member countries of the Council of Europe following one of its meetings in Strasbourg, France, in 2002. One of the main themes of that meeting was prison overcrowding, which affects many countries. The directors of the prison services discussed how to manage this issue, but before they did that, they discussed why prison numbers had risen so much in recent years. In their final report, (2) they concluded that levels of imprisonment in each country are usually influenced more by political decisions rather than by levels of crime or rates of detection of crime. They further concluded that societies can choose to have high or low rates of imprisonment, and this choice is reflected in the sentencing patterns adopted by individual judges. This was a completely different conclusion to come from a group of practical senior prison administrators than had ever been drawn before. Scholarly research has also failed to find any consistent relationship between changing crime rates and changing rates of imprisonment. (3)

There are a number of international examples that substantiate the assertion by the directors of European prison administrations that imprisonment rates in a country can be influenced by factors other than crime or detection rates. For example, in the 1950s, the Finnish rate of imprisonment, at 187 per 100,000, was one of the highest in Western Europe--four times higher than its Nordic neighbors. During succeeding decades, its rate of imprisonment fell significantly: 154 in 1960, 113 in 1970, 106 in 1980, 69 in 1990 and 55 in 2000. This did not happen by accident, nor was it influenced by any change in crime rates. Rather, the decrease was the result of deliberate, long-term and systematic policy choices. (4) First, there was clear political will and consensus to decrease the inmate rate. (5) This involved key politicians, government officials and academics. The reforms were drafted and driven by a relatively small group of experts whose view of criminal policy was broadly similar. The judiciary was closely involved in developing these changes and in a number of respects, judges changed their sentencing practices even before the permissive legislation was introduced. It should be noted that crime control has never been a political issue in Finland. …

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