World Prison Population: Which Nation Has Increased More?

united states prison population

(Published on Huffington Post)

Over the last 15 years, the world's prison population has grown by almost 20 percent -- from just under 9 million to around 11 million prisoners worldwide. Can you guess which nations contributed the most to these increases... and which ones actually decreased the amount of incarcerated they housed? It may surprise you.

Change in prison population levels since 2000 -- by continent:
Rank Continent 2000 2015 % Change
1. Oceania: 34,400 54,726 +59.1%
2. Americas: 2,690,300 3,780,528 +40.5%
3. Asia: 3,023,500 3,897,797 +28.9%
4. Africa: 902,500 1,038,735 +15.1%
5. Europe: 2,013,600 1,538,348 -21.3%

Continentally speaking, the number of prisoners increased the most in Oceania -- a 60% rise since 2000 -- a number dominated by Australia (+66%) and New Zealand (+54%). This increase is more than double the increase of 25% in the overall population of Oceania. But in real numbers, that's only an increase by about 20,000 prisoners.

In terms of sheer numbers of inmates, both Africa and the Americas grew by over a million prisoners each, with the United States accounting for roughly 300,000 of those newly incarcerated. However, that means that if you remove the U.S. from the Americas equation, there were 700,000 prisoners added across the remaining America's countries, mostly attributed to South America and Mexico. In fact, the U.S. by itself only increased by 15% over the last 15 years -- one percent each year -- below the worldwide average of 20%.

Europe, on the other hand, saw a decrease of nearly a half million prisoners -- 21% of its inmate population! This makes them the only continent that experienced a fall in prisoner numbers. This decrease, though, is almost completely attributed to Russia, which reduced its number by almost 40% -- from 1 million to 640,000. Removing Russia from the equation reveals that Europe's numbers were essentially flat overall, with a modest decrease of 1.1%. Southern European countries, such as Greece, Italy and Spain actually experienced increases of roughly 25% each -- ten percent higher than the U.S.

While the U.S. does not claim the greatest increases, percentage-wise, of prisoners amongst the world's nations, it remains, by large margins, the world's most prolific jailer. With an increase of nearly 300,000 prisoners in this country over the last 15 years, no other country in the world has imprisoned more of its citizens than we have. 

When you consider that Russia released more prisoners (417,000) than the U.S. incarcerated over the same period, suddenly percentages don't seem to matter nearly as much. When it comes to imprisoning its citizens, America remains the world leader in locking people up. From that perspective, it's difficult to argue that we are still the land of the free.

Prison Lives ( is a non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides. 

ga('set', 'userId', {{USER_ID}}); // Set the user ID using signed-in user_id.