World Prison Population Statistics

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Roy Walmsley

The British government's Home Office " Research, Development and Statistics Directorate" produce a publication called Research Findings. It covers many topics pertinent to policy-related research and has periodically provided information on the world prison population.

The man responsible for producing these particular briefings - Roy Walmsley - has since gone on to work with the international centre for prison studies, at King's College in London (see details of this excellent statistical resource below).

Here we reproduce details from the summary page of Research Findings No 116, produced in 2000.

Research Findings No 116

The World Prison Population List gives details of the number of prisoners held in some 200 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the differences in the level of imprisonment across the world and makes possible an estimate of the world prison population total.


  • Some 8.6 million people are held in penal institutions throughout the world, either as pre-trial detainees (remand prisoners) or having been convicted and sentenced. Half of these are in the United States (1.85m), China (1.4m) or Russia (1.05m).
  • Russia has the highest prison population rate in the world, some 730 per 100,000 of the national population, followed by the USA (680), the Cayman Islands (665), Belarus (575), Kazakhstan (495), the Bahamas (485), the US Virgin Islands (475), Belize (460), Bermuda (445) and Kyrgyzstan (440).
  • However, almost two-thirds of countries (64%) have rates of 150 per 100,000 or below. (The United Kingdom's rate of 125 per 100,000 of the national population places it at about the mid-point in the World List. Among European Union countries its rate is the second highest, after Portugal's 130.)
  • Prison population rates vary considerably between different regions of the world, and between different parts of the same continent. For example:
    - in Africa the median rate for western and central African countries is 50 whereas for southern African countries it is 260;
    - in the Americas the median rate for south American countries is 115 whereas for Caribbean countries it is 330;
    - in Asia the median rate for south central Asian countries (mainly the Indian sub-continent) is 45 whereas for (ex-Soviet) central Asian countries it is about 260;
    - in Europe the median rate for southern European countries is 70 whereas for central and eastern European countries it is 220;
    - in Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand) the median rate is 120.
  • Prison populations are growing in many parts of the world. Updated information on countries included in the first edition of the List shows that prison populations have risen in 70% of these countries; a similar pattern is evident in all continents.

    Notes to World Prison Population List

    This second edition of the World Prison Population List has been compiled, like the first edition, from a variety of sources.

    In almost all cases the original source is the national prison administration of the country concerned, or else the Ministry responsible for the prison administration. Most figures relate to dates between the beginning of 1996 and the end of 1999.

    Since prison population rates (per 100,000 of the national population) are based on estimates of the national population they have been rounded to the nearest five in order to avoid a spurious appearance of precision. In order to compare prison population rates in different regions of the world, and to estimate the number of persons held in prison in the countries for which information is not available, median rates have been used because they minimise the effect of countries with rates that are untypically high or low.

    The List has a number of weaknesses. It lacks information on 19 independent countries and figures do not relate to the same date. Comparability is further compromised by different practice in different countries, for example with regard to whether all pre-trial detainees and juveniles are held under the authority of the prison administration, and also whether the prison administration is responsible for psychiatrically ill offenders and offenders being detained for treatment for alcoholism. People held in custody are usually omitted from national totals if they are not under the authority of the prison administration.

    Despite its limitations it is hoped that the World Prison Population List will be found useful by academic criminologists who are studying the use of imprisonment world-wide and by non- governmental organisations who are interested in variations in criminal justice practice. The data - for all its imperfections - may prompt fresh thought among policy makers and other criminal justice experts about the size of the prison population in their country, given the huge costs and disputed efficacy of imprisonment.

Topics: Prison
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