Turkey and Russia are the two countries with the highest incarceration rates, according to a new report by the Council of Europe.
The countries have 357 and 356 inmates per 100,000 people, respectively. Georgia is in a distant third position, with a 264, while Lithuania is the EU member state with the highest proportion of incarcerated people at 220.
Other countries with high rates are Azerbaijan (209), Czech Republic (197), Poland (195), Slovakia (193) and Estonia (184).
At the other end of the ranking, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Finland are the European countries with the lowest prison population, with less than 50 inmates per 100,000 citizens. The micro-state of San Marino has none.
"On 31st January 2020, there were 1,528,343 inmates in the penal institutions of the Council of Europe member states for which data are available. This corresponds to a European prison population rate of 103.2 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants," the report notes.
The overall rate of imprisonment has been falling since 2013 when it peaked at 131 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants.
The findings come from the SPACE project (Statistiques Pénales Annuelles du Conseil de l’Europe), a yearly review into the use of prison and probation in the 47 members of the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe is an international organisation that works in the field of human rights and rule of law. Its membership covers the entire European territory, with the exception of Belarus and Vatican City. The body is not related to the European Union, but it does encompass the 27 EU countries.
Who are Europe's inmates?
The extensive report sheds light on the background and conditions of the inmates held in European penal institutions:
The median age of inmates is 36 years, with 15% of them aged 50 or over.
95% of the inmates are men and only 5% are women. The country with the highest proportion of female inmates is Lichtenstein, with 14.3%.
1,608 children are living with their mothers in penal institutions.
15% of the inmates in Europe are foreigners, although this rate varies greatly across the continent. For example, all inmates held in Monaco are foreigners.
22% of the inmates held in European penal institutions are not serving a final sentence and are considered "pre-trial detainees".
In 2019, the average length of imprisonment in Europe was 8.5 months. Only 1.8% of inmates have been imprisoned for life.
The most frequent crimes for sentenced prisoners are drug offences (17.7%), theft (13%), homicide (12%) and robbery (10%).
Close to 8% of inmates have been convicted for rape or other types of sexual offences.
30,524 prisoners have been convicted for terrorism offences, most of them in Turkey (29,827).
Cyber-crimes have led to virtually no sentences "because perpetrators are often based outside the national territory and are difficult to trace and sanction".
Problem of overcrowding
Prison density and overcrowding remain a problem in several European countries. The report indicates that 14 countries had a prison density of more than 100 inmates per 100 places, with Turkey (127), Italy (120), Belgium (117), Cyprus (116) and France (116) topping the list.
At the European level, there are roughly 1.6 inmates per cell.
"The Nordic countries apply short sentences, while some Mediterranean countries have very long prison sentences. For example, Italy has a very strict law, a specific decree that says you need to have 9 square meters per person and if you add a second bed, you need extra 5 square meters," Marcelo Aebi, professor of criminology at the University of Lausanne and one of the authors of the report, told Euronews.
"Of course there are two ways of resolving this: either you reduce the length of sentences or you build more prisons, there is no other way."
During 2019, almost 1,2 million exists from prison were recorded, of which the vast majority corresponded to formal releases. Escapes made up only 0.1% of the exits, while deaths accounted for 0.3% of them.
In the same period, the total cost of imprisonment in all the countries analysed by the Council of Europe totalled €27 billion.