U.N.O.D.C.: Global Prison Overcrowding On Record High

Nearly 11.7 million people are currently detained in prisons around the globe. Putting that in perspective, there are nearly as many prisoners as there are people in Bolivia, Burundi, Belgium, or Tunisia. This population has grown by over 25% since the year 2000. A recent research brief, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (U.N.O.D.C.), explores the negligent state of prison facilities around the world.

Prison overcrowding is a global problem, but it has become much more prominent since the COVID-19 pandemic. Overcrowded prisons have difficulty implementing pandemic-restricting procedures like social distancing and strict hygiene protocols, making it easy for the virus to catch and spread. As of May, nearly 550,000 prisoners had contracted coronavirus. There were nearly 4,000 fatalities.

The U.N.O.D.C. reports that over half of the world’s countries were operating at over 100% their maximum capacity. In one in five countries, that number was over 150%. However, because different countries have different prison capacity standards, direct comparisons are unreliable. Countries which allocate more space to each prisoner tend to have higher rates of overcrowding in comparison to those which accept greater prison densities. Countries in Africa and America tend to have higher rates of prison overcrowding.

Despite these statistical differences, many countries do share the commonality of cause. Globally, prison overcrowding begins at the judicial system. Whenever the court remands an accused person or sentences them to imprisonment, prison services are responsible for their housing. However, if prison sentences suddenly rise, prison capacities cannot follow at the same speed. Prisons require government funding, staffing, and resources, often taking years and tens of millions in USD. Further, processing large volumes of people creates legal time delays which can quickly overburden courthouses, leading to an influx of “unsentenced prisoners” – prisoners who are still waiting for trial.

Currently, nearly one out of every three people incarcerated has not yet been found guilty of a crime. Although the court is legally obliged to hold those considered flight risks, the Nelson Mandela Rules require those people to be segregated. Imprisoning innocent citizens under long periods of time may represent a violation of the human rights to liberty and security.

U.N.O.D.C. suggests four policy measures to prevent the further imprisonment of unsentenced parties: producing alternatives to imprisonment, implementing evidence-based policies, creating accessible forms of justice, and addressing legal bottlenecks in the criminal justice system. These policies can reduce the unnecessary buildup of unsentenced prisoners, which can help ease the pressure off of prisons around the world.