Statistics Explained

Prison occupancy statistics


Data extracted in June 2022.

Planned article update: June 2023.

Highlights


In 2020, the number of prisoners was higher than the official prison capacity in 9 countries.
In 2020, there was 1 prison employee per 1.9 detainees in the EU.

This article presents European statistics on Prison occupancy and expenditure. Prisoners data are presented in the Prison statistics article while Prison personnel data are presented in the Police, court and prison personnel statistics article. Countries' compliance with the classification of crimes and counting methodologies is explained in the general and countries metadata and in the police-recorded offences metadata.

Prison occupancy rate, 2019-2020 (100 ∙ number of prisoners / official prison capacity).
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

Full article


9 countries experienced overcrowded cells in 2020

The occupancy rate for a prison is the number of prisoners relative to the official capacity (design capacity) of that prison[1], multiplied by 100. Overcrowding can be formally defined as any occupancy rate exceeding 100. However, practical adaptations in the prison can make the safe operational capacity higher than the official capacity. On the one hand, a minor or temporary excess does not necessarily indicate an overcrowding problem. On the other hand, measuring overcrowding in a country with several different prisons may hide local overcrowding.

The highest overcrowding rates [2] in 2020 were observed in Greece (111.8), Romania (111.4), Belgium (111.0), Slovenia (109.2) and Italy (106.8), the lowest in Latvia (64.4), Estonia (72.2), Lithuania (73.5) and Bulgaria (76.6). As shown in Figure 1, 16 countries had some extra capacity, or "empty cells", while 9 countries experienced overcrowded cells in 2020. In 18 out of 25 countries that provided data in 2020, the prison occupancy rate decreased compared to 2019, probably due to COVID-19 related measures.

Figure 1:Prison occupancy rate, 2019-2020 (100 ∙ number of prisoners / official prison capacity).
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

Typically, the numbers of prisoners vary more than capacity numbers. Prison capacity cannot be changed rapidly, since it takes time to plan and construct secure buildings. Official prison capacity changes when, for instance, a new prison building is finished, adaptations are made to an existing prison, or a prison is decommissioned. Prisoner numbers depend on other factors, such as conviction rates, lengths of sentences, amnesties and pardons.

One place in prison per 886 persons in the EU in 2020

In 2020, there was one place in prison per 886 persons in the EU, or 113 places in prison per 100 000. This value varies considerably from one EU country to another. It is higher in Eastern and Baltic countries especially in Lithuania (259.0), Latvia (252.8), Estonia (246.7), Poland (226.8), Slovakia (213.0) and Czechia (186.5). Prison places per 100 000 inhabitants are much lower in Finland (54.2), Slovenia (63.3), Sweden (67.4), the Netherlands (69.5) and Denmark (70.3). Figure 2 shows the figures for prison capacity per 100 000 inhabitants compared to the number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants.

Figure 2: Prison capacity per 100 000 inhabitants, 2020.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

1.9 prisoners per prison personnel in the EU

From 2010 to 2019, the average number of prisoners per prison personnel has been around 2.0 in the EU. In 2020 probably due to COVID-19 measures and the consequent reduction in the number of detainees, the ratio decreased to 1.9. Typically, the number of prisoners varies more over time than the number of prison personnel, as it takes some time to adjust staff size to the prisoner population. As illustrated in Figure 3, the number of prisoners and prison personnel fell between 2012 and 2019, while the ratio of prisoners per prison personnel dropped slightly in 2020.

Figure 3: Number of prisoners per prison personnel, adult prisons, 2010-2020
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_age) (crim_just_job)

Government expenditure on prisons

Government expenditure for public order and safety in the EU was 1.8 % of the gross domestic product in 2020 (+ 0.1 % compared to 2019), of which 1.0 % was for police (+ 0.1 % compared to 2019), 0.3 % for law courts and 0.2 % for prisons. The remaining government expenditure was for fire-protection and other services. In Figure 4 the expenditure on prisons, as percentage of GDP, is compared to the number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants. Some countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Finland, Bulgaria and France have a high expenditure on GDP compared to the number of detainees per 100 000 inhabitants, while there are countries including Ireland, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Czechia and Slovakia with a low expenditure on GDP compared to the number of detainees per 100 000 inhabitants.

For more information, see the Statistics Explained article Government expenditure on public order and safety and the table General government expenditure by function

Figure 4: Expenditure on prisons, % of GDP, and number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants, 2020.
Source: Eurostat (gov_10a_exp) (crim_pris_cap)

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

Data sources for prison statistics are national authorities such as prison administration or the national statistical institute. Eurostat collects prison data together with the yearly UN global crime statistics. All results presented in this article are based on official figures.

Missing data is a major problem for some types of crime statistics at European level. In this article, some EU totals are presented that are not found in the Eurostat database. For example, if a 2020 figure was missing, the figure for the last available year (from the same country) was included in the total instead. At the same time, similar adjustments are made for more years. This is not to be considered official EU totals, but may serve to indicate an overall trend. The national figures are presented in the web database as reported (no adjustments).

Eurostat updates the web database when countries send new figures, but older statistical articles may refer to previously reported figures.

Context

In general, each country is responsible for its own criminal laws, criminal justice policies, as well as specifications for relevant statistics. Typically, official statistics on crime and criminal justice are made for administrative purposes and used by national authorities.

Prison statistics are part of official statistics on crime and criminal justice, relating indirectly to crime occurrence and the performance of the criminal justice system.

The number of prisoners (counted at the end of a year) depends on:

  • the number in previous year
  • how many were convicted and actually imprisoned during the year
  • how many left prison during the year: released, pardoned, died, escaped, etc.

The trend in prisoner number depends on:

  • how many crimes are brought to court
  • how many are convicted, and actually sentenced to prison
  • length of sentences received, and the actual duration
  • alternative sanctions, early release, amnesties, pardons, etc.
  • law changes, for which types of crime imprisonment is prescribed, and for how long

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Notes

  1. Source: ‘Handbook on strategies to reduce overcrowding in prisons’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013
  2. 100 means that the number of prisoners is equal to the official prison capacity