CRF Blog

Too many prisons make bad people worse

by David De La Torre

In Too many prisons make bad people worse, The Economist looks at prisons and prison reform around the world.

Nelson Mandela once observed that: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” This article makes a different argument: that although they have improved in recent decades, the world’s prisons are nowhere near as effective as they should be at curbing crime or reducing harm to society. Far too many fit the description of Douglas Hurd, a former British home secretary, who said that: “Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.”

There are at least 10.3m people behind bars worldwide, according to Roy Walmsley of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, a think-tank. This is a snapshot — many more pass through each year and yet more are on parole or probation. The global total excludes countries such as North Korea and Eritrea, which have big gulags but publish no data. It also undercounts the number in China, which has not recently revealed how many of its people are locked up awaiting trial.

Since 2000 the number of prisoners in the world has risen by 20%, a little above population growth of 18%. The trend masks a frenzy of regional change. South America, South-East Asia and the Middle East have seen sharp increases in prisoner numbers (145%, 75% and 75%). In Europe numbers have fallen by 21%. Over the same period, crime has fallen worldwide. [more]