Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the prison population in Europe

The Covid-19 pandemic contributed to reducing the prison population in Europe between January 2020 and January 2021, consolidating a ten-year-long trend in most European states, according to the Council of Europe’s Annual Penal Statistics on Prison Populations for 2021, released today (see also the Key findings).

Key factors contributing to the decrease of the prison population were the reduction in certain types of crimes in the context of the restrictions of movement during the pandemic, the slowing down of the judicial systems, and the release schemes used in some countries to prevent or reduce the spread of Covid-19.

On 31 January 2021, there were 1,414,172 inmates detained in the 49 prison administrations of Council of Europe member states that provided this information (out of 52), which corresponds to a European prison population rate of 102 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants. In the 48 prison administrations for which information is available for both 2020 and 2021, this rate fell from 104.3 to 101.9 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants (-2.3%).

The proportion of inmates serving sentences for theft fell by 8.7%, whilst the percentage of prisoners sentenced for less than one year dropped by 25.5%. “The decrease in these indicators could be an indirect consequence of the lockdowns, which decreased street crime. The drop in the rate of admissions into prisons was also particularly steep in 2020, corroborating the influence of the restrictions of movement related to Covid-19. Fewer interactions between people imply less contact crime in public spaces, fewer arrests, and persons in detention”, according to Professor Marcelo Aebi, Head of the SPACE research team from the University of Lausanne.

Covid-19 has reduced the prison population in Europe
Reducing the prison population with Covid-19

The restrictions on the movement of inmates related to Covid-19 (fewer temporary prison leave permits and less work outside of the penal institutions) could also explain the significant reduction in escapes (2.2 escapes per 10,000 inmates in 2020, compared to 8.2 per 10,000 inmates in 2019).

Out of the 48 prison administrations that provided data for both 2020 and 2021, the incarceration rate – the number of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants – fell in 30 penal administrations, remained stable in 14, and only grew in three, considering only countries with more than 300,000 inhabitants. If one compares the situation with that observed ten years ago, the only country (with more than 300,000 inhabitants) that has a higher prison population in 2021 than in 2011 is Turkey

From 2020 to 2021, the incarceration rate fell the most in Cyprus (-28.3%), Montenegro (-24.4%), Slovenia (-22.1%), Lithuania (-13.4%), Finland (-13.2%), Georgia (-12.1%), France (-11.7%), Armenia (-11.5%), Italy (-11.1%), UK (Northern Ireland) (-10.9%), Portugal (-10.8%) and Latvia (-10.3%). It also decreased in Iceland (-9.7%), Switzerland (-9.2%), Ireland (-8.9%), Turkey (-8.9%), Albania (-8.7%), Czech Republic (-8.4%), Austria (-8.2%), Poland (-8.1%), UK (Scotland) (-8%), the Netherlands (-7.9%), Russia (-7.9%), Luxembourg (-7.5%), Germany (-6.9%), Spain (-6-1%), Denmark (-6%), and Ukraine (-5.2%). The prison administrations where it grew were those of Sweden (+8.2%), Romania (+6.6%) and North Macedonia (+5.4%).

The countries with the highest incarceration rates on 31 January 2021 were Russia (328 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants), Turkey (325), Georgia (232), Azerbaijan (216), Slovakia (192), Lithuania (190), and the Czech Republic (180). Not taking into account countries with less than 300,000 inhabitants, the lowest incarceration rates were found in Iceland (41), Finland (43), Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (50), Netherlands (54), and Slovenia (54).

Overall, in Europe, prison density fell by 5.3% from January 2020 to January 2021 (from 90.2 to 85.4 inmates per 100 places available). According to the information provided by the prison administrations, six of them reported prison density of more than 105 inmates per 100 places, an indicator of serious overcrowding: Romania (119 inmates per 100 places), Greece (111), Cyprus (111), Belgium (108), Turkey (108) and Italy (106), taking into account countries with more than 300,000 inhabitants. The prison density was also above 100 persons per 100 available places in France (104), Sweden (101), and Hungary (101).

The SPACE surveys are conducted every year for the Council of Europe by the University of Lausanne. The SPACE I survey contains information from 52 prison administrations in the Council of Europe member states, whereas the SPACE II survey focuses on probation populations.

Important :

  • Forty-nine of the 52 prison administrations of Council of Europe member states participated in the SPACE I 2021 survey. The survey was completed prior to the Council of Europe´s Committee of Ministers´ decision to exclude Russia from the organization as of 16 March 2022.
  • The only prison administrations that did not participate in the SPACE survey this year were those of Malta and two of the three prison administrations of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the State administration and the administration of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina).
  • Unless specified otherwise, data refer to 31 January 2021 and are expressed in median values, which are more reliable than average figures as they are less sensitive to extreme figures.
  • When considering prison density, it must be noted that countries with a lower total number of inmates than their overall prison capacity at the national level may also suffer from overcrowding in specific prisons.
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