The World Prison Brief: database of global imprisonment levels

This post was contributed by Roy Walmsley, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies’ world-renowned World Prison Brief. In November ICPS was merged with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

iStock_000012313253XLargeThe aim of the World Prison Brief (WPB) is to enable more well-informed discussion about appropriate levels of imprisonment and about issues such as the use of imprisonment for women, the use of pre-trial imprisonment and the problems of prison overcrowding; and to contribute to the making of sound evidence-based decisions by all who are endeavouring to improve prison systems worldwide.

The WPB was launched in September 2000. It contributes to the knowledge base on the use of imprisonment by giving details of prison population levels in over 220 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the variations in practice in different countries, regions and continents and makes it possible to estimate the world prison population total (over 10 million). It also gives information on the proportion of pre-trial, female, juvenile and foreign prisoners in the total, as well as on the official capacity of each prison system and its occupancy rate, thus indicating the level of overcrowding. Recent trends in prison population levels are also shown.

The information comes from a variety of sources, principally the national prison administration, the Ministry responsible for the prison administration or the national statistical office. So these are official figures and they are obtained from publications by these bodies (including annual reports and data on official websites), direct communication with contacts in the prison administrations, responses of these bodies to international surveys etc. Sometimes information comes via a third party (e.g. an international body or a non-governmental organisation) and such material is used when the source is established as reliable and the data consistent with what is already known about prison population levels in the country concerned. Information is collected on an ongoing basis and the website is updated monthly with data obtained during the previous month.

It is essential that the information should be as reliable as possible. This is of course dependent first of all on the reliability of the data published by the official bodies in the countries concerned. In practice the main difficulty encountered – apart from the fact that so many countries do not publish prison population numbers, or do so only rarely – is incompleteness of data. This can result, for example, from the omission in some countries of figures for a part of their country that is separately administered and in other countries the omission of data on persons whose pre-trial detention occurs in police facilities instead of prisons. When this is known to be occurring the WPB draws attention to it alongside the official figures.

Ensuring the reliability of data also depends on validating it carefully. Newspaper reports quite often quote a prison department or Ministry official giving a figure that is obviously wrong. All new figures are compared with data previously recorded in order to minimise the chances of mistaken information appearing in the WPB.

The WPB is the only source of comparative data on prison systems worldwide and is regularly quoted in briefings by Governments, by inter-governmental bodies such as the OHCHR, UNESCO and OECD, by NGOs and pressure groups, in academic articles and journals and in the media.

Academics use  the data in the WPB to explore policies that lead to higher or lower rates of imprisonment  issue, and politicians, NGOs and think tanks use the data in arguments against the introduction of policies that will lead to a higher rate of imprisonment relative to comparable countries.

That the WPB is considered relevant in prison policy-making circles around the world is evident from the fact that the comparative figures appear in prison administration annual reports in many countries. There is widespread sensitivity to the ranking position in which a country is shown to be, particularly in comparison with its nearer neighbours.

Sometimes it is clear that national policy is quite directly being influenced; governments occasionally send up-to-date figures so as to demonstrate that their situation has improved – numbers have come down – since the figure that the WPB was showing. One government has developed a project to introduce reforms that are designed, in the words of their published report, ‘to eliminate their country from the 50 that are leading in terms of prison population’.

The WPB has, therefore, affected the discourse on the use of imprisonment among governments, academics, NGOs and think tanks. The ability to compare a country’s prison population level with that of its neighbours, the rest of its continent and the rest of the world has caused administrations to think more deeply about their own use of imprisonment.

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