Prison populations and overcrowding: The United Kingdom and Rwanda

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
June 29, 2022

It’s hard to fathom that in 2022 the global prison population is growing. The current global prison population stands at an estimated 11.5 million, up 24% worldwide since 2000, this figure is almost certainly an underestimation due to the lack of transparency from some countries. It is well documented that the impact of incarceration, especially in prisons which simply do not have the capacity to house these prisoners, leads to detrimental effects for both prisoners and the wider society. This article will delve in to the prison populations of Rwanda and the United Kingdom, the two countries whose governments have just made a historic refugee resettlement deal.

The UK-Rwanda resettlement deal has sprung Rwanda back in to media focus lately, with many media outlets, politicians and civilians branding the deal and Rwanda as a society as ‘inhumane’. However, there is little mention of their penal system and the fact that they have one of the highest incarceration rates in the whole world, with a fairly small population of around 13 million. After the tragedy that was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, an estimated 125,000 Rwandan’s were incarcerated in prisons designed to hold 12,000 prisoners. Of course, this was largely branded to be inhumane, for a country to so willingly overcrowd prisons without a fair trial or proper due process in place. Rwanda’s willingness to incarcerate people doesn’t appear to have changed a great deal. In 2021 the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy research stated that second to the United States, Rwanda has the highest prison population rate per 100,000 of the general population at a staggering 580. Local news, sourced from ‘Rwanda Today’, claim that incomplete investigations along with delayed prosecutions are significantly contributing to the overpopulation of the 12 prisons in Rwanda. This is not reassuring for a country who has just made a deal with the UK government to offer safe refuge to vulnerable people fleeing their home countries. The UK government themselves note how overcrowding in prisons in Rwanda is a significant problem, along with the sanitation of the prisons and the lengthy process of pre-trial investigation and detention. Last year, the National Human Rights Commission released figures showing that Rwanda had the capacity to imprison 61,320 people, but was in fact operating way above that capacity at 76,099.

The United Kingdom is a very different country from Rwanda, instead of one of the poorest countries in the world, it is one of the richest. One would assume that this wealth would put the UK in a prime position to minimise their prison population, by implementing proper research and ensuring more rehabilitation-based community sanctions, instead of just putting people in prison, especially for relatively minor offences. The UK population to date stands at around 68.5million, almost 6 times that of Rwanda. UK Parliamentary Publications show that by June 2022, the estimated prison population will be 85,800, with a maximum of 90,900 and a minimum of 80,800. Just one year previous, in another publication by the UK government, titled, ‘Prison Population Projections 2021 to 2026…’, it was asserted that the UK has the operational capacity to hold 80, 904 prisoners and that incarceration rates across both genders and age ranges, 15-50 is set to increase. Relative to population size, Rwanda incarcerates significantly more people, this does not however take away from the fact that UK also incarcerate a huge amount of people, which is only set to grow. Sentencing people to prison in any country, without a fair process and humane treatment and without proper capacity is dangerous to all parties, and ultimately will be counterproductive in rehabilitating people. 

Despite widespread calls to reduce global prison populations, due to the harms and ineffective results, this is not happening. Global Prison Trends 2022, shows the concerning global expansion of prison capacity, alongside the issue that these new prisons being built across the world, are in more remote locations, further limiting the humanity toward prisoners by restricting their access to the outside world even more than a ‘regular’ prison. Governments more often than not, use prison overcrowding as an excuse to build new prisons instead of finding long term, helpful solutions to decrease the overall need to incarcerate people. It will take a concerted effort to reduce the rates of global imprisonment, but for the benefit of all involved, this is something that needs to happen as quickly as possible. 

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