Accurate data relating to prison and criminal justice systems is essential for law- and policymakers and actors at all levels in order to identify gaps and develop and implement effective systems. Data on prisons, from basic information such as number of detainees, levels of capacity and staff numbers, are not always captured or transparently available. This is particularly the case in low-income countries or fragile and conflict-affected settings where a lack of resources is a challenge. In Sri Lanka, for instance, prison records remain mostly manual and differ across prisons. The digital divide is another factor contributing to shortcomings in data collection (see Role and use of technologies).
Data on prisons, from basic information such as number of detainees, levels of capacity and staff numbers, are not always captured or transparently available.
Burdensome or cumbersome procedures, and decentralised systems, can also be a challenge to data collection and transparency – as well as a lack of political prioritisation. In the US, observers noted the growing delays in the publication of national prison data, partly explained by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) task of collecting and analysing data from the country’s particularly decentralised system while being underfunded and understaffed.
The accessibility of data can be made more complicated where various aspects of prison management are treated by different arms of governments or agencies, resulting in data being scattered across different ministries and services. In the Philippines, for example, prisons are managed by the Bureau of Corrections under the Department of Justice, while pre-trial detention facilities are under the responsibility of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, in the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
The quality of data, including whether it is disaggregated and adequately comprehensive, is often impacted by national specificities. In France, legislation heavily limits and supervises data collection on ethnicity and religion, which also applies in relevant data on prisons. In other countries, specific groups such as LGBTQ+ people are excluded entirely from prison population data (see LGBTQ+ people in prison).
Traditionally prisons have been shrouded in secrecy as closed institutions.
While external monitoring, access to service providers and civil society to prisons has become the norm in many places, it is not the case everywhere particularly in non-democratic states. Where authorities operate prisons with a ‘state secret’ approach, civil society and other non-state institutions frequently seek to fill the gap by monitoring and publishing information gathered. One example is in Iran, where the NGO, Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), documented and published a report with information gathered on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s prisons. The government had kept data on the number of people who had contracted the virus, including fatalities, a secret.
The coronavirus pandemic has reiterated the need to have data that is current, accurate, and disaggregated by age, sex, ethnicity and other factors. As the virus spread rapidly in detention facilities, authorities needed to respond quickly to protect specific cohorts of the prison population. The availability of accurate and disaggregated data facilitated the inclusion of at-risk groups in emergency release measures or changes to prison regimes, such as in Ireland.
The ‘Covid Data Transparency Index’, which examines 100 countries on 40 different aspects of their COVID data, ranked only four countries an effective 5-star rating and 63 with 2-stars or worse. The Index published in December 2020 noted ‘huge differences in countries’ coverage, management and usage of national pandemic data’, and that there have been clear challenges faced by governments in measuring the true level of infections.
This situation is exacerbated when it comes to detention settings. Aside from insufficient testing (see Health in prison), transparency on COVID-19 has been generally poor. In Mexico, there has been a lack of public information released by prison authorities on not only the number of infections and deaths but what protocols or measures have been adopted. A similar approach of not disclosing data has been an issue particularly in Africa where there is a general lack of data on prisons. In Cameroon, for example, data on the number of cases and deaths in prisons remains unpublished. A data gap has also been seen in regard to releases; research on 53 jurisdictions found that about three-quarters of governments failed to publish any official data on the number of people released from prison in response to COVID-19.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.