South Africa’s prison population vs the world

The latest available prisoner statistics from across the world shows which country has the largest prison population – and where South Africa fits into the picture.

According to the World Prison Brief by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, South Africa has a total prisoner population of 159,241 people as of March 2015 – including pre-trial detainees.

This represents the 11th highest prisoner population in the world in terms of sheer numbers, but only 35th (out of 222 regions) with 292 prisoners per 100,000 people.

The United States tops the rankings globally, with 2.2 million prisoners in its criminal justice system.

The US figures include 731,200 people in local jails, as well as 1.48 milllion people in state or federal prisons. The USA has 4,575 confinement facilities with an official holding capacity of 2,157,769.

China has the second highest prison population in the world, with 1.65 million prisoners, followed by Russia with 644,700 prisoners.

San Marino – a ‘micro-state’ surrounded by Italy has only two prisoners (out of a population of 33,700), the lowest figure in the world, ahead of Liechtenstein, with seven prisoners out of a population of 37,130.

San Marino also has the lowest prisoner rate in the world, at 6 per 100,000 people.

While the USA has the biggest prisoner population in the world, the Seychelles, with a population of 92,000 trumps the USA for the highest rate of prisoners, with 799 per 100,000. The USA is still rated second, however, with 698 prisoners per 100,000 people.

According to the Seychelles News Agency, the majority of nearly 800 inmates are incarcerated in the main Montagne Posée Prison, some 500 of them.

The remaining are either in the Open prison on Coetivy island, 290 kilometres south of the main island of Mahé, which is for the rehabilitation of prisoners or in the prison where drug traffickers, sexual offenders and refractory prisoners are incarcerated, on Marie-Louise, an outer island of the Seychelles.

More than 400,000 US inmates are awaiting trial,  while more than 166,000 inmates are incarcerated for murder, 95,000 for sexual assault, and 70,000 for rape.

The 15 biggest prisoner populations in the world

# Country Total prisoners
1 United States of America 2 217 000
2 China 1 657 812
3 Russian Federation 644 696
4 Brazil 607 731
5 India 411 992
6 Thailand 314 303
7 Mexico 255 138
8 Iran 225 624
9 Turkey 165 033
10 Indonesia 161 692
11 South Africa 159 241
12 Vietnam 142 636
13 Colombia 121 257
14 Philippines 120 076
15 Ethiopia 93 044

The 15 highest prisoner rates in the world

# Country Prisoners per 100,000 population
1 Seychelles 799
2 United States of America 698
3 St Kitts and Nevis 607
4 Turkmenistan 583
5 Virgin Islands (USA) 542
6 Cuba 510
7 Rwanda 492
8 El Salvador 489
9 Guam 469
10 Thailand 466
11 Belize 449
12 Russian Federation 446
13 Grenada 430
14 Virgin Islands (UK) 425
15 Anguilla 407
35 South Africa 292

Prison in South Africa

South Africa’s 231 active correctional centres are overcrowded, with an official prison system capacity of 120,000 – giving an occupancy rate of 133%.

In September it was reported that almost 4,200 prisoners had to be evacuated from the Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison outside Cape Town, after two inmates died from rat-related diseases.

This was reportedly due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions – including a lack of sanitary facilities.

On paper however, the Institute for Criminal Policy Research points to an overall downward trend in prisoner numbers since 2008.

South Africa hit a peak prisoner population in 2004 with 187,640 prisoners at a rate of 403 per 100,000 people – however the highest prisoner per 100,000 population rate was in 1980, where it was at 409.

South Africa’s prisoners are largely male, with female prisoners making up only 2.5% of the total. A small percentage are juveniles or minors (0.2%), and 6.3% are foreigners.

According to the WPB, 26.9% (42,901) South African prisoners are awaiting trial.

Quick facts:

  • Biggest prisoner population: USA – 2,217,000
  • Highest prisoner rate: Seychelles – 799 per 100,000
  • Highest pre-trial detainee rate: Libya – 90%
  • Highest female prisoner rate: Liechtenstein – 22.2%
  • Highest foreign prisoner rate: United Arab Emirates – 92.2%
  • Most overpopulated prisons: Comores – 388.3% occupancy level

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South Africa’s prison population vs the world