Women in prison: how does the UK compare?

17 September 2012

Updated on September 19 at 18:00.

Today the Independent kickstarted its week-long investigation on women in prison with an interesting statement:

"There has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of women in British prisons. The figure in England has more than doubled over the past two decades to 4,144 - the highest rate of female imprisonment in the European Union." [emphasis added]

However the newspaper did not cite a source for this claim, and finding the data to back it up proves harder than you might expect.

The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) has published up-to-date figures detailing global prison population rates per 100,000 of the national population, but they are not broken down by gender. According to this list the UK, with 154 prisoners per 100,000 population, has the second highest rate in Western Europe after Poland. 

Our interest, however, lies on the female rate. 

Due to the lack of available statistics, we looked at the Council of Europe Penal Stastics from 2009 which show the number of female prisoners for every EU country excluding Austria and Greece. We measured this against Eurostat's 2009 female population data set and calculated the rate.  

The results are shown in the heatmap below. 

According to these statistics, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic all rank higher than the UK. 

The ICPS informed Full Fact that as far as they knew:

"None of the key European statistical sources provide separate prison population rates for male and female prisoners — they just look at the proportion of women within the system. However a quick calculation using the figures in the second edition of the World Female Imprisonment List which uses figures from the end of December 2011, and total population figures taken from the 1 January 2012 figure from this Eurostat table give the following:

UK          4,553 female prisoners          population 62,498,610 million = female prison population rate of 7.28 per 100,000 of the population

Spain     5,376 female prisoners           population 46,152,926 million = female prison population rate of 11.64 per 100,000 of the population

So as far as we can see, whichever way you look at it Spain imprisons more women than we do." [emphasis added]

Update: Paul Vallely of the Independent pointed to this British Medical Journal article as the source of the paper's claim. The figures originate from the 2004/5 World Prison Brief which the BMJ author accessed in March 2004. According to Helen Fair - research associate at the ICPS - "at that date the figure showing on WPB for the female prison population in Spain was 4,523 giving a rate of 10.68. In the UK the figure was 3,992 giving a rate of 7.17."

Unfortunately, the brief is not publicly available. 

Finally, we can conclude that there was a point in the past 8 years when the UK had a higher female imprisonment rate that Spain's. We do not, however, have enough information on other countries' rates, but that is beside the point. The figures are out-of-date, and Britain no longer tops the female imprisonment tables in Europe. 

Flickr image courtesy of the Kheel Centre, Cornell University

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