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Imprisonment Worldwide: The Current Situation and an Alternative Future

By Andrew Coyle, Helen Fair, Jessica Jacobson, and Roy Walmsley
Bristol: Policy Press. 2016.

Although the growth of incarceration over the past decades has been discussed widely, most research on this subject has been conducted in the US. This is mainly because the nation’s prison population outnumbers those of other developed countries. Coyle and colleagues close this gap in the literature by investigating the topic at a global level. The authors take an ambitious approach by assessing 223 nations around the world based on the World Prison Brief of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Considering the difficulty of analysing complex international data, publishing a book of this scope is an accomplishment as well as a valuable addition to current knowledge. This book addresses three questions:

Section I What is the current global trend of imprisonment?
Section II What is the suitable framework for prison management?
Section III What kind of socio-political approaches are essential in dealing with incarceration-related issues?

Drawing on worldwide imprisonment statistics, Section I provides readers with a global overview of prison populations. As suggested in the book, the total prison populations increased from 2000 to 2015 by about 19.5 per cent around the world. The increase corresponds to the argument made by David Garland (2001), “It (i.e. imprisonment) ceases to be the incarceration of individual offenders and becomes the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population.” Notable presentations in Section I include comparisons of prison populations not only by nation and continent, but also by prisoners’ status (i.e. remand prisoners) and demographic characteristics (i.e. gender and foreign prisoners). Such detailed analyses offer readers a clear picture of a global trend of imprisonment. However, it fails to deliver an insightful examination of the factors or reasons behind these changes. In the concluding part of the section, the authors do point out some of the socioeconomic and political factors which influence this. However, a more in-depth discussion would have been beneficial. Simply put, the first section is presented more as a fact-finding document.

Despite the limitation described above, the purpose of this work is clear. It is to impact and change the current approach taken by the institutions at a global scale. This intention is revealed from Section II. In Chapter Six, the authors present applicable guidelines to improve the quality of prisoners’ daily lives. Predicated upon the international human rights standards, this chapter suggests desirable standards concerning imprisonment conditions and they do this by taking a down-to-earth approach. In Chapter Seven, actual portraits of prisoners and their lives are presented according to their demographic and social profiles. The portraits provide compelling evidence of social and economic injustices. Moreover, the authors do not simply show the snapshots of prison populations and prisoners’ profiles but also build their arguments by factoring in various contextual variables.

Section III, an alternative future, contains the main ideas that the authors present throughout this book. The first proposal, Justice Reinvestment, is that the financial resources spent on imprisonment need be distributed to the local communities to improve their social and economic conditions. In line with the first proposal, the authors propose a human development model which centres on a better quality of life for individuals. These proposals require a paradigm shift among policy makers and practitioners. This means refocusing from individual-centric solutions to community approaches based upon human rights. However, considering the significance of Section III, it would have been clearer if the authors had provided the backgrounds or justifications regarding the basis of the proposals.

In general, a study with policy implications addresses the following issues: what the problem is, why it is problematic, and how we can change it, which is undertaken in this book. Nonetheless, the authors fail to consider how they might achieve their proposals. To illustrate this, despite having made suggestions for a broad change, few concrete changes are actually presented by the authors in the book.

To sum up, the authors find that socially and economically disadvantaged groups are overrepresented in prisons and this issue needs to be dealt with from a socio-political perspective. A pervasive theme in this book, human rights, resonates throughout each chapter. In tandem with international standards, the authors shed light on prisoners’ human rights in Section II.  In Section III, they extend their focus on human rights to individual well-being and community-based solutions. Additionally, they do not lose focus on such themes during the course of constructing their arguments.

Overall, this book proves to be a well-rounded informative reference for both researchers and practitioners. The authors have written an easily accessible, insightful, and thought-provoking book and also one that enriches our knowledge of contemporary prison systems. The main contribution of this book lies in the fact that it presents futuristic macro-level proposals. While it may not live up to the expectations of some readers who seek answers to their country-specific questions for a real change, it would be a good source for the readers who want to understand the current trend of imprisonment and which general direction it should be taking. Any society that wants prison reform in a humanistic manner need to seriously consider the arguments presented by the authors in this highly informative book.

University of Portsmouth


Garland, D. (Ed.). (2001). Mass imprisonment: Social causes and consequences. London: Sage Publications.

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