Statistics Explained

Prison statistics


Data extracted in July 2021.

Planned article update: July 2022.

Highlights

There was a total of 497 000 prisoners in the EU in 2019.
There were 112 prisoners per 100 000 people in the EU in 2019.
[[File:Prison statistics August 2021.xlsx]]

Prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants, average 2017-2019


This article presents European statistics on prisons, prisoners and prison personnel.


Full article


One prisoner for every 895 people in the EU in 2019

There was one prisoner for every 895 people in the EU in 2019, or 112 prisoners per 100 000 people. The value (prisoner rate) is constant compared to the previous year, at its lowest level since the turn of the century.

The highest prisoner rates in the EU (average 2017-2019)[1] were in Lithuania (227.4), Czechia (203.5), Estonia (196.9), Poland (194.8), Slovakia (189.1), Latvia (184.3) and Hungary (174.6). Many of these countries show decreasing values compared to the 2016-2018 average. The lowest rates were in Finland (54.3), Sweden (61.1), Denmark (63.3) and the Netherlands (65.6). Figure 1 presents data for all countries that provided prison statistics to Eurostat.

Figure 1: Prisoners per 100_000 inhabitants, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

Trends in number of prisoners

There were 497 000 prisoners in the EU in 2019, which is 10 % less than in 2012, when there were around 553 000 prisoners, the highest number since 1993. The number of prisoners in the EU rose by 24 % from 1993 to 2012. In that same period, the population of the EU grew by just 4.4 %. This resulted in the prisoner rate increasing from 106 in 1993 to 126 in 2012. From 2012 to 2016, there was a downward trend in the number of prisoners, resulting in an overall reduction of 10.4 %. The data for the last four years (2016-2019) show an apparent stability at the same level of the beginning of the century. Due to missing 2016-2019 figures for Belgium and 2017 figures for Slovenia, the data are estimated.

A net increase in the number of prisoners is mainly due to more new prison sentences than the number of releases. One of the major causes of the increase in prisoners from 1993 to 2012 was a preceding rise in serious crimes across Europe[2]. After an increase in serious crimes followed by more convictions with longer sentences, the increase in the number of prisoners may remain on a higher level for a while, even after the crime rate drops. In addition, large declines in the number of prisoners can be caused by decriminalisation, amnesties and pardons.


Figure 2: Prisoners (number and rate by 100 000 inhabitants), 1993-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_pop) (crim_pris_cap) (demo_pjan)

1 out of 20 adult prisoners are women

Between 2010 and 2019, 1 in 20 adult prisoners in the EU were women. As illustrated in Figure 3, the proportion has increased slightly in recent years. The average percentage of adult women prisoners was 5.0 % from 2010 to 2013, increasing to 5.4 % in 2019.

Figure 3: Adult prisoners by sex, 2010-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_age)

The share of women in prison varies between EU Member States (see Figure 4). Between 2017 and 2019, the highest shares on average were observed in Malta (9.8 %), Latvia (8.1 %), Czechia (7.8 %), Spain, Finland (both 7.6 %), Hungary (7.5 %), and Slovakia (7.4 %). The lowest shares were in Bulgaria (3.2 %), France (3.6 %), Denmark and Poland (both 4.1 %) and Italy (4.3 %). For Belgium, Germany and Ireland data are missing for all three years.

Figure 4: Adult prisoners, percentage of women, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_age)


1 out of 5 prisoners have a foreign citizenship in the reporting country

Between 2017 and 2019, 1 in 5 prisoners in the EU had a foreign citizenship in the reporting country. The share of prisoners with foreign citizenship varies between EU Member States (see Figure 5). The highest shares on average were observed in Luxembourg (74 %), Greece (55 %), Austria (54 %), Malta (45 %), Cyprus (41 %), Estonia (35 %) and Italy (34 %). The lowest shares were in Romania and Poland (both 1 %), Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia (2 %) and Hungary (5 %). For Belgium, Germany and Ireland data are missing for all three years. Data are stable compared to the average of the previous three years.


Figure 5: Percentage of prisoners with foreign citizenship in the reporting country, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_ctz)


Two prisoners per prison employee in the EU

From 2010 to 2019, the average number of prisoners per prison employee has been around 2 in the EU. Typically, the number of prisoners varies more over time than the number of prison employees, as it takes some time to adjust staff size to the prisoner population. As illustrated in Figure 6, the number of prisoners and prison employees fell between 2012 and 2019, while the ratio of prisoners per prison employee remained relatively stable.


Figure 6: Number of prisoners per prison personnel, adult prisons, 2010-2019
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_age) (crim_just_job)

The number of prisoners per prison personnel varies between EU Member States (see Figure 7). The highest 2017-2019 average figures were observed in Poland (4.4), Bulgaria (2.5), Portugal and Greece (both 2.4), Spain and Lituania (each 2.3). The lowest figures were in Sweden (1.0), the Netherlands (1.1), Denmark (1.2), Croatia (1.3), Finland and Luxembourg (both 1.4). Data are steady compared to the average of the previous three years. For Belgium, Germany, Ireland, France and Cyprus data are missing for all three years.


Figure 7: Number of prisoners per prison personnel, adult prisons, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_age) (crim_just_job)


Overcrowding and empty cells

The occupancy rate for a prison is the number of prisoners relative to the official capacity (design capacity) of that prison[3], 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 [4] were observed in Hungary, Italy and Cyprus (each 119), France (116) and Romania (109), the lowest in Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria (each 81), Croatia (82) and Lithuania (83). For Belgium and Ireland data are missing for all three years. As shown in Figure 8, fourteen countries had some extra capacity, or "empty cells", while eleven countries experienced overcrowded cells. The figures are the 2017-2019 average.

Figure 8:Prison occupancy rate, average 2017-2019 (100 ∙ number of prisoners / official prison capacity).
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

Typically, prisoner numbers 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.

Figures 9, 10 and 11 illustrate prison occupancy trends, showing six countries that have reported a complete data series from 2008 to 2019.

In Sweden, a decrease in the number of prisoners began in 2010, followed by a capacity reduction that started in 2012. From 2013 to 2017, the number of prisoners in Sweden was relatively stable, and the capacity was gradually reduced, while keeping the rate below 100. In 2018 and 2019 the number of prisoners increased again and the capacity was increased to keep the rate below 100.

In Portugal, there was a relatively large increase in the number of prisoners between 2008 and 2015, while the capacity remained much the same. Thus, the prison occupancy went from having some extra capacity to being relatively crowded at national level. In 2016, the number of prisoners started falling. This combined with some increase in capacity, improved the situation and the prison occupancy rate reached the 100 value in 2018 and 2019.

Figure 9: Number of prisoners and official prison capacity, Portugal, Sweden 2008-2019
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

In Italy, there was a steady increase in prison capacity between 2008 and 2019, while the number of prisoners varied much more. Italy had its highest prison occupancy in 2010 and lowest in 2015 after amnesty and pardon. Since 2016, the number of prisoners has risen again and the occupancy rate in 2019 was 121 %.

In Poland, there was a steady increase in capacity between 2008 and 2012, while the number of prisoners generally decreased. From 2013, prison occupancy fell considerably due to falling number of prisoners, while capacity was maintained and only slightly decreased in 2018 and 2019. The prison occupancy rate in 2019 was 87 %.

Figure 10: Number of prisoners and official prison capacity, Italy, Poland 2008-2019
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)

In France, there was a steady increase both in prison capacity and prisoners between 2010 and 2019. The prison occupancy rate has always been higher than 100, between 113 % and 117 %.

In Romania, in 2014 the number of prisoners decreased sharply and also the prisoner capacity has been reduced. The prison occupancy rate was always slightly higher than 100 in the period.

Figure 11: Number of prisoners and official prison capacity, France, Romania 2008-2019
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)


One place in prison for every 878 people in the EU in 2019

There was one place in prison for every 878 people in the EU in 2019, or 114 places in prison per 100 000 people.

This value varies considerably from one EU country to another. It is higher in eastern countries such as Lithuania (275), Estonia (242), Poland (229), Slovakia and Latvia (both 209) and Czechia (194). Prison places per 100 000 inhabitants are much lower in Finland (53), Cyprus (64), Sweden, Slovenia and Denmark (each 65) and the Netherlands (70). Figure 12 shows the figures for prison capacity compared to the number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants.

Figure 12: Prison capacity per 100_000 inhabitants, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_cap)


1 out of 5 prisoners are awaiting trial

In 2019, 19 % of prisoners were awaiting their final trial.

Between 2017 and 2019, the proportion of prisoners awaiting trial was highest in Luxembourg (47 %), followed by Denmark (35 %), Croatia (32 % ), Malta (31 %) and Greece (30 %). The proportion of prisoners without conviction is much lower in Romania (7 %), Czechia (8 %), Bulgaria (9 %), Polonia (11 %) and Lithuania (12 %). Figure 13 shows the average over the period 2017-2019.

Figure 13: Prisoner by legal status of the trial process, percentage, average 2017-2019.
Source: Eurostat (crim_pris_tri)

Government expenditure on prisons

Government expenditure for public order and safety in the EU was 1.7 % of the gross domestic product in 2019 of which 0.9 % was for police, 0.3 % for law courts and 0.2 % for prisons. The remaining government expenditure was for fire-protection and other services. In Figure 14 the expenditure on prisons, as percentage of GDP, is compared to the number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants. There are countries with high expenditure on GDP and low numbers of detainees per 100 000 inhabitants, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Luxembourg, Denmark and Bulgaria, while there are countries with low expenditure on GDP and high numbers of detainees per 100 000 inhabitants, as Greece, Romania, Portugal, Lithuania, Estonia and Malta.

Table 1: Total general government expenditure on public order and safety, 2019, % of GDP


Figure 14: Expenditure on prisons, % of GDP, and number of prisoners per 100 000 inhabitants, 2019.
Source: Eurostat (gov_10a_exp) (crim_pris_cap)


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

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

Data sources for prison statistics are national authorities such as prison administration or the central statistical office. 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 due to quality considerations. For example, if a 2019 figure was missing, the figure for the last available year (from the same country) was included in the total instead. On occasion, 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). An example may illustrate the reporting. For the EU time series 1993-2019, in all 18 figures were missing for various countries and years, of a total of 27*27=729 figures (2.47 % missing data, 1.17 % missing data in the period 2000-2019).

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 decides 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. Data for Belgium missing for all three years.
  2. Source: "crim_gen". Crimes recorded by the police (sum of acts causing harm or intending to cause harm to the person, injurious acts of a sexual nature and acts against property involving violence or threat against a person).
  3. Source: ‘Handbook on strategies to reduce overcrowding in prisons’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013
  4. 100 means that the number of prisoners is equal to the official prison capacity