Men make up most of the prison population globally, constituting 93% according to an analysis by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Disaggregated data on who is in prison is not universally available, but country or regional trends indicate that over the past few decades, there have been some notable changes to the demographic of prison populations.
The number of women in prison has increased markedly by 33% over the past 20 years, which is a higher growth than the male prison population, which rose by 25%. In Africa, the female share of the prison population has remained stable at around 2.9% of the region’s prison population, whereas Oceania, the Americas and Asia saw slight increases. In Europe, the proportion of women in prison has increased the most – from 4.2% of the region’s prison population in 2000 to 6.5% in 2019 – a trend driven by a faster decline of men in prison relative to women (see Imprisonment and prison overcrowding).
A change witnessed in a number of high-income countries in recent years is an increase in older persons in prison. The reasons for these increases vary from country to country, but extreme sentences, including life imprisonment and the death penalty, are playing a role. Longer sentences have contributed to people over 60 remaining the fastest growing demographic in British prisons. In Australia, where there has been a 311% increase in the daily average number of older persons in prison in the last 20 years, reasons include a higher proportion of older persons being convicted of offences which carry longer sentences, such as homicide and sex offences, as well as an increase in the prosecution of non-recent sex offences, and generally increased offending rates for older persons.
In the US, 55% of people on death row in 2019 were over the age of 50, and the latest statistics by the Department of Justice show 14% of men and 9% of women in prison are over the age of 55. In the state of Florida, the number of older people in prison has grown by 77% in a decade, now making up over a quarter of the prison population. This has been attributed to mandatory sentences and led to calls for releases not least due to older detainees costing three times as much with increased healthcare costs.
Release mechanisms triggered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic explicitly included older people in many countries, given their higher risk from COVID-19, but it remains unclear whether and to what extent they benefited older people, as disaggregated data based on age is not available in most places. While older persons in the community, among other high-risk groups, are prioritised in most national COVID-19 vaccination plans, this often does not extend to older persons in detention (see Prison healthcare).
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people (LGBTQ+) continue to be overrepresented at all stages of the criminal justice system. Although data is extremely scarce, where data is available, it is clear that LGBTQ+ people represent a disproportionately large demographic in prisons, and rising numbers in some places.
Sixty-seven UN Member States still retain laws which criminalise consensual same-sex conduct and six of these require the death penalty as punishment. In the absence of criminal conduct, LGBTQ+ people continue to be targeted by law enforcement based on discriminatory grounds such as perceived gender or sexual orientation. Last year in Cameroon, for example, two trans women were sentenced to five years in prison for ‘attempted homosexuality, private indecency, [and] lack of a national identity card’ as they had slept in the same house overnight and had feminine gender expressions.
Reports continue to demonstrate that LGBTQ+ people face increased risk of violence and other human rights violations once arrested and in prison. In Argentina, it was found that 13% of people who cross-dress (see report: “travestis”) and trans women in prison had been physically assaulted by prison staff, and 45% by other detainees. There have also been reports of harassment, abuse and violence, including sexual violence, towards detained LGBTQ+ people in Turkey, Lebanon, India and Burkina Faso.