There is a certain fascination for prison worlds, as has been demonstrated by hugely successful films such as Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption set in high-security jails. However, a glimpse into the lives of real-life prisoners is a relatively rare opportunity.
Currently, over 10.2 million people are being held in prisons throughout the world. However, these are not evenly spread out with certain countries incarcerating far more than others. The average world incarceration rate is 144 per 100, 000 people. However, more than half of the countries and territories in the world have rates of under 150 per 100, 000, revealing a concentration of prisoners in certain key nations. This leads us to question whether these countries’ incarceration rates correspond to higher crime rates, or whether these soaring imprisonment statistics are caused by stricter penal policies.
The following list ranks countries from lowest to highest according to their incarceration rates proportional to 100, 000 of the national population, using data collected by the International Centre for Prison Studies in 2013. The list accounts for the number of prisoners held in 222 independent countries and dependent territories.
Glimpsing into the prison world is intriguing, but always disturbing. Indeed some of the countries that incarcerate the most also see their inmates living in the most deplorable conditions; many of these nations likely have questions of policy to answer to, but also serious questions surrounding human rights.
10. Russian Federation – 475
With 681,600 prison inmates, Russia has one of the largest prison populations in the world after the United States and China. Of these, approximately 59, 200 are women, held in separate institutions. Numerous human rights campaigns have been targeted at the Russian prison system. The Black Dolphin prison in particular attracted scandal, accused of inmate abuse by wardens. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the ex-business man imprisoned on counts of fraud, was a leading figure in revealing that although the judicial system has improved, prisoners’ living conditions do not meet the expectations of contemporary Russian democratic society. In December of 2013, Putin signed a pardon freeing Khodorkovsky. The state is continually being criticised as having failed to become a dispassionate arbiter between the citizen and officialdom. The problem of high incarceration rates is exacerbated by the fact that Russia cannot afford to keep so many prisoners in acceptable conditions – therefore conditions tend to be bad.
9. Belize – 476
Belize Central Prison is the country’s only correctional institution. It is run by the Kolbe Foundation, a not for profit, non-governmental organisation. It houses men, women, adults and youths but an overwhelming proportion of these are adult men – only 1.7% of the prisoners are female. As an underdeveloped country, Belize has not had the resources to address the crime problems it has been faced with. Before 2002, the prison was an embarrassment to the government with escalating problems of overcrowding, poor food, poor sanitation, and corruption. Since the Kolbe Foundation took over in 2002, comfort and security have become priorities and the prison has been expanded. Compared with facilities in more developed countries, the prison is relatively open, placing a certain amount of trust in its inmates.
8. Anguilla (UK) – 487
Though the Caribbean island of Anguilla is small, it has a significantly high incarceration rate with 76 prisoners out of a population of 15, 600. Only two of these prisoners are female. The Island’s only detention centre, Her Majesty’s Prison, is overcrowded with an official maximum capacity of 53 inmates. This is a concern, as it increases the risk of prison rape and the spread of HIV. Since the early ’00s the number of prisoners has been on the rise, but this rise is unsustainable.
7. Rwanda – 492
Just a few days ago, twenty years after the events, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was commemorated. The question of violence has been closely associated with the African country ever since. 62% of the country’s prison population is detained on genocide-related charges. Currently, in Nyamagabe prison alone, more than 3300 genocidaires are in detention. Rwandan prisons are notorious for their ill-treatment of these political detainees. This mistreatment has included beatings, the denial of access to medical care, prolonged detention for inmates that have served their sentences, solitary confinement in complete darkness causing a loss of sight, among other atrocities. A number of organisations are working to improve prisoner safety.
6. Cuba – 510
Held to a strict penal code, Cuban prisoners have been condemned to over five years of incarceration for relatively small crimes such as carrying a few grams of marijuana or stealing a few mangoes. Moreover, it is believed that most of the 200 prisons spread out across the country are inhumane and unfit for prisoners. Complaints of beatings, meagre food portions, and highly degraded cells are often heard. Moreover, at the prison Combinado del Este, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations have been refused study and assessment of the facilities and living conditions. Cuba is the sole remaining Latin American country to repress virtually all political dissent: the government typically sentences dissidents to a one to four-year prison term.
5. Barbados – 521
Barbados’s HM Glendairy prison has a tumultuous history: destroyed by inmates during a prison uprising in 2005, it was reconstructed as the HM Dodds facility at a new location in 2007. The prison conditions are reportedly terrible – a number of accounts have emerged in recent years telling stories of wrongful arrests, undue lockups, beatings, rape and poor sanitation. After the first Glendairy prison burned down, inmates were moved to a temporary prison that is reported to have been in particularly poor conditions.
4. United States Virgin Isles – 539
The conditions at the US Virgins Isle’s Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility have been described as deplorable. In 2011, the American Department of Justice claimed that for 25 years, the facility had failed to comply to court orders requesting a significant improvement in the prison’s conditions. An astounding amount of contraband has been found in the prison, numerous stabbings have occurred, and the staff is deemed to be inadequately trained. The prisoner’s well-being is perpetually at risk.
3. Seychelles – 709
A 2012 report on prison conditions in the Seychelles found that the incarceration facilities did not meet international standards. The most problematic issues are overcrowding and sanitation. Of 628 prisoners, 600 are male and 28 are female. Detainees are often held alongside convicted prisoners. Montagne Posee Prison is the country’s main prison and is considered overcrowded and failing to meet basic needs: although access to sufficient potable water has improved, sanitation and hygiene facilities remain poor. Cells are also bleak, and often poorly lighted and ventilated. At least health requirements are usually met with a part-time doctor and nurse available to provide medical treatment to the inmates. Ninety nine Somali pirates (partly responsible for overcrowding in prisons in the Seychelles over the past years) have been transferred back to Somalia in recent years.
2. St Kitts and Nevis – 714
In St Kitts and Nevis, prisons are overcrowded and facilities are poor. The isles’ only prison was built in 1840, with an intended capacity of 150 prisoners. However, it has been recorded to have held up to 270 prisoners at certain times, with prisoners either sharing beds or sleeping on mats on the floor. Pretrial detainees were at times incautiously locked up with convicted prisoners. However, prisoners are granted reasonable access to visitors and religious preferences are tolerated. The government enforces staff training in human rights and permits human rights observers to assess these facilities – however, few such visits occur. Therefore, though conditions are not ideal, the problem has been acknowledged by the government and is on its way to improvement.
1. The United States – 716
With a current total of 2, 239, 751 criminals behind bars, the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Whether it’s due to the legalisation of weapons or the inordinately strict penal code is a topic of heated debate among social and political commentators. Despite representing just 5% of the world’s population, the United States holds a full 25% of all the world’s prisoners. Whilst this may mean the US streets are safer, it is also a huge and perhaps unnecessary expense to the government. Indeed, imprisonment of Americans costs a shocking $24, 000 per inmate per year on average (although this varies between states) and $5.1 billion in building new prison facilities, thus consuming $60.3 billion in budget expenditures – amassing huge controversy among taxpayers.