Crime Congress highlights 'epidemic' prison overcrowding

Originally published by the UN News Centre on 16/04/2015

17 April 2015 - At any given time, over 10 million people worldwide are in prison. With this, prison overcrowding has reached epidemic proportions in many countries - an issue raised at a side event during the  13th Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Doha.

"Prison overcrowding can be considered a symptom of a malfunctioning justice system", noted Piera Barzano, Senior Regional Advisor of the Justice Section at UNODC. "The problems of overcrowding have to be dealt with by the prison administration, although the solutions are seldom within their reach." Ms. Barzano noted several reinforcing reasons that may lead to prison overcrowding, including causes not confined to the limits of criminal justice but that extend to other spheres of State responsibility such as welfare policy, access to health services, education, and employment.

Prison overcrowding refers to the occupancy rate compared with the official capacity of prisons. More specifically, the rate of overcrowding is defined as that part of the occupancy rate above one hundred per cent; in situations where occupancy is above 120 per cent this can be considered as serious overcrowding.

Last year, 77 countries worldwide were reported as having a prisoner occupancy rate higher than 120 per cent, with some as high as almost 400 per cent. The problem is very localized and extremely challenging, with overcrowding increasing the risk of transmission of communicable diseases and posing an immense management challenge to prison administrations.

"Prison overcrowding impacts the quality of nutrition, sanitation, prisoner-activities, health care services and the care of vulnerable groups. It affects the physical, mental health and well-being of all prisoners. It generates prisoner tension, violence, exacerbates existing mental and physical health problems," said Ms. Barzano.

Five years ago at the 12th UN Crime Congress, in Brazil, a workshop was held on the 'Strategies and Best Practices against Overcrowding in Correctional Facilities.' "So here we are five years down the line," continued Ms. Barzano, but there is still a growing recognition that one of the key obstacles to implementing the provisions of the standard minimum rules of the treatment of prisoners is overcrowding in prisons,

Held every five years, the Crime Congress, which runs from 12-19 April, brings together Governments, policy-makers and experts to consider how best to integrate crime prevention and criminal justice into the wider UN agenda. It also focuses on links between security and justice, and sustainable development.

Further information at:

13th Crime Congress for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice

UNODC and Criminal Justice reform