Prison overcrowding remains a problem in Europe: Council of Europe’s annual penal statistics for 2023

Prison overcrowding continues to be an acute and persistent problem in a significant number of European prison administrations, according to the Council of Europe’s Annual Penal Statistics on Prison Populations (SPACE I) for 2023. In countries with over 500,000 inhabitants, twelve prison administrations reported having more inmates than places available in January 2023.

Overall, in Europe, the number of prisoners per 100 places available grew by 2% from 31 January 2022 to 31 January 2023 (from 91.7 to 93.5 inmates). Seven prison administrations reported a prison density of more than 105 inmates per 100 places available, indicating severe overcrowding: Cyprus (166 inmates per 100 places), Romania (120), France (119), Belgium (115), Hungary (112), Italy (109) and Slovenia (107). Five prison administrations reported very high prison density: Greece (103), Sweden (102), North Macedonia (101), Croatia (101) and Türkiye (100). Other administrations reported a prison density below 100 but were on the edge of overcrowding: Ireland (99), Portugal (98), Finland (97), Denmark (97), England and Wales (UK) (97) and Azerbaijan (96).

On 31 January 2023, there were 1,036,680 inmates detained in the 48 prison administrations of Council of Europe member states that provided this information (out of 51). From January 2022 to January 2023, the median European prison population rate grew by 2.4% in countries exceeding one million inhabitants – from 113.5 to 116.2 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, a similar increase to the year before.

Sixteen prison administrations experienced a significant increase in their prison population rates from January 2022 to January 2023: the Republic of Moldova (+52%), North Macedonia (+26%), Cyprus (+25%), Türkiye (+15%), Azerbaijan (+13%), Ireland (+12%), Montenegro (+11%), Armenia (+11%), Croatia (+10%), Hungary (+8.7%), Northern Ireland (UK) (+8.3%), Georgia (+8.2%), Bulgaria (+8.1%), Austria (+6.8%), Italy (+5.7%) and Sweden (+5.1%), in countries with over 500,000 inhabitants. Incarceration rates only fell substantially in Malta (-22%), Lithuania (-8.9%), Estonia (-8.8%) and Greece (-5.2%) while they remained stable in 23 prison administrations.

The countries with the highest incarceration rates were Türkiye (408 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants), Georgia (256), Azerbaijan (244), the Republic of Moldova (242), Hungary (211), Poland (194), Slovakia (183), Albania (179), Czechia (176), Lithuania (174) and Latvia (172). Other countries with high incarceration rates were Montenegro (168), Serbia (162), Estonia (151) and North Macedonia (142).

“For the second consecutive year, the overall European prison population rate slightly grew. This could still be a bounce-back effect from the reduction experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic years, due to the drop in offline crimes during the lockdowns, the release of prisoners in some countries, and a decrease in the activity of the criminal justice systems. However, this increase contrasts starkly with the overall strong downward trend in incarceration rates since 2013. It remains to be seen if there is a change of trend. The persistence of overcrowding remains an important challenge for many prison administrations,” said Professor Marcelo Aebi, Head of the SPACE research team from the University of Lausanne.

Violent and drug-related offences represent more than half of the main crimes for which European prisoners are serving prison sentences. Drug offences are the most common offence (19% of the sentenced population), followed by homicide and attempted homicide (13%), theft (12%), sexual offences (8.9%), robbery (7.7%) and assault and battery (6.7%).

On 31 January 2023, on average, almost one third of inmates in European prisons was in pre-trial detention. The prison administrations with the highest proportions of pre-trial detainees were Albania (55%), Armenia (53%), Luxembourg (49%), Switzerland (46%), the Netherlands (45%), Montenegro (42%) and Northern Ireland (UK) (41%). Czechia (7.5%), Lithuania (11%), Poland (11%), Romania (12%) and North Macedonia (12%) had the lowest proportions of pre-trial detainees.

On average, 27% of inmates in European prisons were foreigners, although with significant disparities across countries. Prison administrations with the highest proportions of foreigners were Luxembourg (78%), Switzerland (71%), Greece (57%), Cyprus (55%), Austria (51%), Catalonia (Spain) (49%), Malta (49%) and Belgium (42%), in countries with over 500,000 inhabitants. The lowest proportions were found in Romania (1.1%), the Republic of Moldova (1.5%) and Azerbaijan (1.9%). In Central and Eastern European countries, the proportion is significantly lower than in the rest of Europe; this overlaps with the natural movement of European populations since the 2000s: rising populations in Western, Southern and Northern Europe and decreasing populations in Central, South-Eastern and Eastern Europe.

As of 31 January 2023, the average age of inmates in European penal institutions remained 38 years. The lowest average ages were observed in Bulgaria (33), Sweden (34), France (35) and Denmark (35), while the highest were found in Serbia (50), Georgia (44), Italy (43), Portugal (41) and Spain (41). Of all inmates, 14% of inmates were aged 18 to 25, 68% 26 to 49, 15% 50 to 64, and 3% were 65 years or over. An overwhelming majority of the prison population were men: women only accounted for 5% of the prisoners. In Cyprus (9.2%), Malta (9.1%), Czechia (8.5%), Finland and Latvia (7.7%), the proportion of women was relatively high.

The SPACE surveys are conducted annually for the Council of Europe by the University of Lausanne. The SPACE I survey contains information from prison administrations in the Council of Europe member states, whereas the SPACE II survey focuses on probation populations. (source:coe.int/photo:freepik.com)

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George Kazoleas, Lawyer

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