Prison overcrowding is commonly cited as the primary driver for investment in new prison facilities, although in many cases the new capacity suggests governments expect an increase in the prison population. In Turkey, where construction began on 131 new prisons between July 2016 and March 2021, there are plans to increase prison capacity by over 266,800 spaces by 2024. Authorities point to overcrowding, along with the need to upgrade old facilities, as reasons for their significant investment in prison construction as the prison population continues to rise (Turkey has the highest imprisonment rate among all Council of Europe Member States). However, a report on the rapid expansion of their national prison footprint found that where old facilities were being replaced, they were ‘traded for mass prison complexes’.
Also, in 2021, the Sri Lankan government announced its plans to build an enormous 200-acre prison complex in Millaniya, Horana, which would allow for 100,000 people to be detained across the country’s some 60 detention facilities, three times its current population. Overcrowding levels currently sit at 190%, meaning 28,000-30,000 people are held in prisons with an available capacity of 10,000 people. The complex would comprise dedicated facilities for women, children and people on remand, and different security levels, as well as a drug rehabilitation centre, a farm and a sports facility. Other countries building new prisons in response to overcrowding include Angola, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica and France.
In England and Wales, where the prison population has almost doubled in 25 years, government projections foresee a further increase of just under 100,000 people in prison by March 2026, putting this down to the recruitment of an extra 23,400 police officers. In response there are plans to create 18,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s, which includes building four new prisons, expanding four others, and completing ongoing construction of two prisons, attracting an investment of GBP £4 billion.
Some prison construction initiatives are triggered by the need to replace older and outdated facilities. This trend is mainly seen in Europe (a region that has seen a recent drop in prison numbers). For instance, in Finland, five of six new prisons are intended to replace existing old facilities. In Armenia, a new prison close to the capital, Yerevan, with capacity for 700 people is to replace three older prisons. In addition, a small facility with capacity for around 50 people is in the plans to accommodate so-called ‘prisoner leaders’ who are responsible for sub-cultures, an informal hierarchy of detainees in which leaders exert different levels of authority on their peers and prison staff, under which violence and corruption are rife. Spain is also constructing a new prison in San Sebastian to replace the city ’s existing prison and refurbishing 53 other prisons, and Serbia has embarked on a programme of facilities upgrading in line with EU standards which has expanded prison capacity by about 2,000 spaces since 2018 through the construction and entry into service of new prisons and sections of prisons.
New prisons are increasing in scale as well as geographical remoteness.
With some exceptions, there is a general trend for new prisons to be the largest yet. An example of this is in Norway where new facilities are aborting the country’s small-scale units which typically housed around 30 people. As many of these units become old with outdated infrastructure they are being replaced by much larger facilities and in recent years every new prison being constructed sets a record as the country’s largest. Annual budget cuts for prisons have driven this change, although there is concern that the investment in the move to larger facilities, coupled with reduced funding, will have an impact with lower staffing levels, increased time in cell and less capacity to run rehabilitation programmes. Similarly, in New Zealand a new prison expected to open in 2022 will be the country’s largest, with 500 spaces, and an additional 100 spaces for mental health and addiction services.
Some countries are explicitly following an ‘American model’ of massive prison complexes. In Egypt, the President announced last September that an ‘American-style’ mega prison will soon be opened. It will reportedly have a capacity of some 30,000 people, making it the largest prison in the country. In Turkey, the floorspace of new prisons constructed after 2016 has reportedly increased by an average of 50%, compared to the period between 2012 and 2016, when the failed coup took place, creating mass prison complexes.
A movement to reverse this trend of large prisons in favour of smaller prisons is garnering support. In Europe, a network of organisations, Rescaled, is advocating for a shift away from prisons to the concept of small-scale detention houses. Support centres around the growing body of evidence that prison architecture and design is critical to achieving humane treatment of people imprisoned and achieving positive outcomes. In the Netherlands, in place of two high security facilities for youth, five small scale lower-security facilities have been opened; three of them in 2021.
Where information regarding the size and location of new prison constructions is publicly available, it is clear that there is generally a trend towards increased scale as well as geographical remoteness. This is largely owing to the significant amount of real estate required, and costs involved, in or near densely urban sites.
There is evidence that prisons in rural spaces can bring positives, as detailed in a recent study on prison location in England and Wales which found that surrounding greenspace was related to lower levels of self-harm and violence in prisons. There may also be better opportunities for agricultural vocational and rehabilitation activities, and for prisons to be self-sustaining with prison farming initiatives. However, common concerns arise about the negative impacts of rural prisons, particularly with regard to contact with the outside world and the availability of services.
Prison healthcare services tend to be worse off in rural areas. In Burkina Faso, only the two major prisons in the two largest cities Ougadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso are visited by a volunteer psychiatrist every two weeks, whereas in the other 27 prisons in the country, this service is not available. Similarly, in Lebanon, medical centres are available only in three of the country’s prisons that are all in urban centres (Qobbeh, Tripoli and Zahle prisons). In Nigeria, where there are around 200 general psychiatrists in the entire country for a population of over 200 million people, 70% of these psychiatrists are located in or around cities, resulting in significant unmet mental health needs in prisons in underserved regions. In Uganda, mental healthcare in rural prisons has been described as poor or non-existent. Infrastructure in rural areas can be lacking too, as seen when a new prison in Ethiopia was built in a rural area and faced difficulties in accessing water supply.
The ability to maintain contact with families and other support networks is also affected by distance from urban areas. An extreme example of this is seen in a prison in southern Peru.Challapalca prison is situated at an altitude of 4,600 metres, representing the highest altitude prison in the world; the location is harsh, with extreme weather and often freezing temperatures and is, therefore, not easily accessible for relatives, lawyers or medical services. In Lebanon, where it is common for people to be held in prisons far from their hometowns, it has been difficult for families to visit in the past couple of years due to the country’s fuel shortage amid the acute economic crisis.
Multistorey prisons in urban centres in US metropolises, such as Chicago and Miami, are being looked to as a way to expand prison capacity in cities by other jurisdictions. In Mumbai, India, authorities are set to build a multistorey prison in the city which has a shortage of land, amid rising prison numbers and overcrowding. Authorities point to the US examples as a model, one that is still being pursued. A facility that is part of the controversial plans to replace the notorious Rikers Island prison complex in New York with four smaller jails is a high-rise jail in the middle of Manhattan. While there are benefits to keeping people imprisoned in cities so they can be close to their support networks and other services, high-rise prisons in high-density urban settings have attracted criticism. Outdoor space can be at a shortage and multistorey facilities without the required adjustments to infrastructure can pose difficulties for older persons or those with other accessibility needs.
Over recent decades, there has been increasing interest in engaging private companies and public-private partnerships (PPP) for the construction and running of new prisons. In some countries, such as the US, UK, Australia, and South Africa, it has been common for private companies to be contracted to build, and then run prisons in their entirety. In Brazil, several PPP to build and operate prisons are planned, for example in Santa Catarina state and in São Paulo, as part of efforts to reduce overcrowding. In Kazakhstan, the government has entered a PPP to build 40 new prison facilities before 2025, under a wider strategy to modernise the prison system.
A few jurisdictions have, however, started to turn away from engaging private companies in the running of prisons, citing poor conditions and treatment in their facilities. US President Joe Biden issued an executive order shortly after taking office in January 2021 aiming to end the use of private detention facilities for those in federal criminal custody. In 2021, the last private prisons in Queensland, Australia were returned to state control, with the Corrective Services Minister citing challenges in ensuring people detained in privately operated facilities are treated humanely and have appropriate access to programmes and services.
 Information from open sources was found on planning and initiating construction of new prison facilities in 2021 in the following countries: Angola, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, Paraguay, Peru, Serbia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay.
 PRI’s research involved a scan of the following types of material: press-releases, reports from national/international monitoring bodies, reports from NGOs, newspaper articles.