This report by Penal Reform international has set itself enormous challenges. Not only does it describe global trends in imprisonment, but it seeks also to place these trends in a wider context and then to draw policy recommendations from the discussion of the data.

The mere description of global trends is difficult enough. Fortunately, PRI was able to draw on the work of others: that of Roy Walmsley, the author of the World Prison Brief, and of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as well as important regional studies, such as very detailed SPACE reports on penal statistics published by the Council of Europe. The current report skilfully weaves together information from all these sources, as well as from national data and PRI’s own resources, in order to give a carefully nuanced picture. Yes, there are many prisoners in the world – more than 10 million in all – certainly more than a decade ago – but the trend is not only in one direction. In many countries there are declines in prisoner numbers. Why this is happening in some countries but not others requires closer examination.

The wider context for developments in imprisonment worldwide, which the current report provides, is a good basis for such an examination. The report usefully dismisses some lazy assumptions that are often made about links between changing crime rates and increases in prison populations. The failure of crime rates to increase globally as a result of the international economic recession since 2008 has not only confounded settled criminological wisdom; it has also fatally undermined the simple justification that more crime requires more use of imprisonment. This is often the approach of countries that have allowed their prison populations to increase in recent years. At the same time, the report also stresses the importance of recognising the link between social development and improvements in criminal justice, which can lead to better prison conditions.

Part of the wider context of modern imprisonment is the rapid development of new technologies of control. The report describes succinctly how they can be used both in prison and to develop alternatives to imprisonment, such as electronic monitoring. It points out that new technologies can have positive or negative consequences. Positively they facilitate the release of suspects or offenders who would otherwise be held in prison. Negatively however, electronic links can be substitutes for interpersonal contacts and thus contribute to the increasing isolation of prisoners.

The recommendations for reform are solidly based on this detailed contextual analysis. They range from suggestions on how to reduce the overall prison population, with a particular focus on women and remand prisoners, to detailed suggestions for how prison conditions can be improved. The special focus on drugs in the report is valuable. The recommendation that, wherever possible, drug problems should be seen as medical rather than criminal justice questions, points the way both to imprisoning fewer drug offenders and treating those drug users who are in prison more effectively.

I trust that Global Prison Trends 2015 will encourage ever more careful collection of penal data and ever more rigorous analysis of the conclusions to which the data point. In this way it will contribute greatly to penal reform worldwide. Ultimately such reform depends crucially on accurate information and careful policy recommendations applied consistently in the many and diverse penal systems that make up the world penal order.

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