Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment in ten countries


This international research and policy project examined the use of imprisonment in ten contrasting jurisdictions across all five continents. It aimed to advance understanding of the factors that drive high levels of imprisonment and help develop the capacity of civil society and governmental organisations to surmount barriers to reform. To achieve these aims, we worked closely with local and international NGOs and other stakeholders to highlight the economic and social harms of excessive use of imprisonment and to devise and disseminate workable strategies for reducing the resort to custody.

The ICPR project team included Helen Fair, Catherine Heard and Jessica Jacobson. The project benefited from financial support from the Open Society Foundations and from pro bono support from Clifford Chance and other legal practitioners across the ten countries.

The project’s first publication was the March 2017 report, Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world. This was followed by two further reports in 2019: Towards a health-informed approach to penal reform? Evidence from ten countries and Pre-trial detention and its over-use: Evidence from ten countriesIn January 2021 the report Sentencing burglary, drug importation and murder: Evidence from ten countries was published. 

From March 2020, we rapidly assessed the measures being taken by prisons around the world to contain the risk of COVID-19 spreading within and beyond their walls. With our research partner, Prison Insider, we researched measures taken, and their impacts, across the ten countries. We conducted desk research and interviewed expert informants – that is, individuals working in academia or in human rights and penal reform organizations who had specialist knowledge of prisons. Interviews were also undertaken with over 80 prisoners, ex-prisoners and their loved ones, both before and during the pandemic. The resulting reports – Locked in and locked down - prison life in a pandemic: Evidence from ten countries and Keeping COVID out of prisons: Approaches in ten countries were published in May 2021.

In June 2021 a new section of our World Prison Brief website was launched which draws together all the findings from the Ten-country prisons project. Throughout June 2021, over 20 specially commissioned pieces of content were released, all dealing with specific aspects of over-incarceration. Available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, these accessible articles and videos engage with key findings from the project.

The project was launched in early 2017 and concluded in June 2021.


Open Society Foundations