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Prison overcrowding is one of the key contributing factors to poor prison conditions around the world. It is also arguably the biggest single problem facing prison systems and its consequences can at worst be life-threatening at best prevent prisons from fulfilling their proper function.

Data suggests that the number of prisoners exceeds official prison capacity in at least 115 countries. Overcrowding is a consequence of criminal justice policy not of rising crime rates, and undermines the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as healthcare, food, and accommodation. It also compromises the provision and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes, educational and vocational training, and recreational activities.

Overcrowding, as well as related problems such as lack of privacy, can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

We have developed a 10-point Plan to Reduce Prison Overcrowding to provide guidance to policy-makers on how to address prison overcrowding and mitigate its harmful consequences. This includes, for example:

investing in non-custodial alternatives to detention both pre-trial and post sentencing

diverting minor cases out of the criminal justice system altogether

investing in long-term strategies for crime prevention and reduction

reducing high rates of pre-trial detention by improving access to justice

making special or alternative arrangements for vulnerable groups, such as children, mothers with dependent children and people with mental health issues.

Key facts
22 national prison systems hold more than double their capacity, with a further 28 countries operating at between 150% and 200% capacity.

The highest rate of overcrowding in the Americas is 310% (El Salvador), in Africa 363% (Benin), in Asia 316% (Philippines), in Oceania 217% (French Polynesia), in the MENA region 186% (Lebanon), and in Europe 136% (Macedonia). As individual countries themselves determine the capacity of particular prisons, it is likely that data may understate the extent of the problem.

In most prison systems, prisoners do not have the minimum space requirements recommended by international standards, spending up to 23 hours of the day, if not all day, in overcrowded cells. Overcrowding can be so severe that prisoners sleep in shifts, on top of each other, share beds or tie themselves to window bars so that they can sleep while standing.

In some countries only periodic amnesties and pardons relieve overcrowding. While these provide short-term relief, they do not offer a sustainable solution and can erode public confidence in the criminal justice system. In others, costly prison-building programmes are undertaken to meet the growing demand for prison places.

Some groups are particularly adversely affected by prison overcrowding. For example, the needs of women and children in detention – already often given little attention – tend to be even more neglected in overcrowded and overstretched prison systems.

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