There are significant variances across regions and countries in the use of imprisonment. Imprisonment remains the default response to criminal offending in some regions. Asia and the Americas currently house 75 per cent of the 11 million people making up the global prison population. The number of people in prison compared to the general population remains the highest in the US (639 per 100,000), El Salvador (572 per 100,000) and Turkmenistan (552 per 100,000).
Overcrowding levels remain high and are growing to chronic levels with occupancy levels as high as 450 to 600 per cent in Haiti, the Philippines and Congo. In the context of the global pandemic, overcrowding has exacerbated the overall poor detention conditions in many countries, especially access to healthcare, proper hygiene and appropriate nutrition, placing the lives of people in prison at particular risk.
Emergency measures to reduce prison populations have been taken in many countries, but initial analysis shows that they have not sufficed in addressing overcrowding (see Releases in response to COVID‐19). Drivers for high imprisonment and overcrowding rates have been stable over the years. They include the overuse of pre-trial detention, including its automatic application for certain offences. In Mexico, the Senate expanded the use of mandatory pre-trial detention in July 2020 for certain offences, including the illegal possession of weapons, among others.
Mandatory sentencing is also a driver, as well as longer sentences, including an increase in the use of life imprisonment. Drug policies continue to result in rising prison populations especially in Asia and the Americas. In at least six Latin American countries, mandatory prison sentences are given for non-violent drug offences even as prisons are already overwhelmed. Despite the high rates of imprisonment, the World Drug Report 2020 of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the illicit drug trade continues to expand and drug use is on the rise, showing the that harsh policies are not effective in meeting their purported goal.
Responses to COVID-19 have contributed to prison overcrowding due to backlog in court hearings from a scaling back of judicial activity and increased caseloads due to the criminalisation of violations of restrictions and other emergency measures. The latter resulted in a variety of sanctions ranging from fines to up to several months or even years in prison, as in France and Taiwan. In Uzbekistan, the Criminal Code was amended in March 2020 to sanction the distribution of ‘misinformation’ about the spread of the virus in the country by up to three years’ imprisonment.
UN human rights experts expressed serious concern over new laws adopted in Cambodia in March 2021 which grant the Government power to ban or restrict any gathering or demonstration, and allow 20-year prison terms and fines of up to 20 million riels (USD 5,000) for those convicted of violations. In several countries, people are being sentenced to short prison terms for the violation of quarantines, such as in Bahrain, Ireland, Singapore and the Cayman Islands. In the Philippines, as of June 2020, nearly 190,000 persons had been apprehended for violating quarantine orders, adding a heavy burden to congested courts. In October there were still 1,700 persons detained in already overcrowded pre-trial facilities for noncompliance with quarantine regulations. In Morocco, the emergency law resulted in the arrest of a significant number of people, mostly young adults, leading to an increase in the prison population.
Elsewhere, there were concerns that existing legislation on the voluntary transmission of contagious diseases could result in being charged with serious offences. In many places arrest and detention were reported to have been used as a first rather than last resort in cases involving noncompliance with public health measures, often increasing the risk of contagion with little physical distancing employed.
Extending criminal law as part of governments’ responses to the global pandemic has affected people in a situation of vulnerability, including LGBTQ+ people and indigenous peoples. The use of fines can have a particular impact on economically vulnerable persons: in Barbados for instance, a man was sentenced in December 2020 to six months in prison for breaching COVID-19 protocols, after he could not pay the BDD 6,000 (USD $3,000) fine upon his arrest. In Europe, a network of NGOs expressed their concerns at the overall movement towards the use of criminalisation in the COVID-19 response, especially regarding reports of unlawful arrests and charges and their impact on people in a situation of economic vulnerability.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.