UN Urges Action on Prison Overcrowding

San Quentin prison in California. source: creative commons/California Dept. of Corrections

San Quentin prison in California. source: creative commons/California Dept. of Corrections

April 22, 2015 – The prisoner population exceeds prison capacity in 77 countries by at least twenty percent and the United Nations is asking member states to examine sentencing laws as a means to reducing the number of inmates.

Some 10 million people are behind bars globally, ranging from a high of 2.2 million in the United States to just two in San Marino, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.

The declaration adopted last week at the UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice calls on states to examine “penal policies” and “to enhance the use of non-custodial sanctions” to reduce prison overcrowding, which leads to increased violence, suicide and the spread of infectious disease.

The highest rates of overcrowding regionally are in Benin (363%), El Salvador (320%), Philippines (316%) and Serbia (158%).

By far, the single biggest cause of prison overcrowding are custodial sentences for people convicted of low-level drug offenses. About 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide have been convicted of the sale or possession of drugs, says a new study from the Penal Reform Institute. In US federal prisons, that rate rises to 49 percent.

The call from the UN crime congress is timely as delegates will gather next month at UN headquarters to discuss plans for the 2016 UN General Assembly special session on the World Drug Problem.

The meeting was called for by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico in 2012, countries at the forefront of the drugs problem that has lead to spiraling rates of violence.

Advocacy groups are hoping that the meeting will lead to a re-examination of policies that are causing overcrowding of prisons and a rethink on the criminalization of drugs. The facts support such calls. For example, while women globally represent about ten percent of all prisoners, most are imprisoned for minor drug offences and many of these have existing addiction issues, which are not treated in prisons.

The General Assembly session in preparation of the 2016 high-level meeting will take place on May 7th.

Top Ten Prison Populations Globally

1 United States of America 2 217 000
2 China 1 657 812
3 Russian Federation 673 818
4 Brazil 581 507
5 India 411 992
6 Thailand 330 923
7 Mexico 255 638
8 Iran 225 624
9 Indonesia 167 163
10 Turkey 165 033

Top Ten Countries Where Prison Population Exceeds 100 Percent of Prison Capacity

1 Benin 363.6
2 Comoros 343.3
3 El Salvador 325.3
4 Philippines 316.0
5 Zambia 279.3
6 Guatemala 270.6
7 Venezuela 269.8
8 Bolivia 256.9
9 Sudan 255.3
10 Uganda 254.6

Source: International Center for Prison Studies

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Pre-Trial Detention Overcrowding Tunisia’s Prisons

Prison
April 28, 2014 – More than half of those detained in Tunisia’s prisons have not yet stood trial and in some instances have been behind bars for up to three years waiting to have their cases heard.

These are among the details in a UN human rights office report released on Monday on the state of prison’s in the North African country where a popular uprising in 2011 overthrew the country’s autocratic regime.

The report says that the high number of pre-trial detainees is causing over crowding and those accused of minor offenses are housed in the same institution as those convicted of serious crimes.

In Manouba Women’s Prison, one dormitory held 60 inmates but only ten of them had been convicted. The report also notes the high number of university students imprisoned for drug offenses and recommends a progressive approach to drug consumption offenses from fines to sentence suspension, then imprisonment.

The full report is here (Arabic).

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia