Doing time around the world

Where would you rather go to jail?

By Anna Ford


largest prison populations by continent

Being “tough on crime” means the U.S. now has the largest prison population in the world. If “Jail” were a state, it would be the 36th biggest, between Nevada and New Mexico. How does the U.S. compare to other countries?

We turned to the International Centre for Prison Studies in the UK, which tracks prison statistics from around the world, to get a bigger picture of prisons.

The U.S. is number one in prisoners and number one in prisons. But the balance isn’t quite right: the U.S. has more prisoners than the jails are designed to hold.

The U.S. isn’t alone in sentencing more prisoners than its jails should hold. We listed the country with the highest prison population on four continents, and all of them have more prisoners than they have room for. Notable in our chart is the United Arab Emirates, which locks up more foreigners than any other country (92.2 percent of inmates).

China, though nearly four times as populous as the U.S., has fewer people behind bars. It still leads Asia for most people in jail. It also leads the world in executions for 2011, according to Amnesty International, though there is no public data on this.

Not every country has overstuffed prisons. Iceland had only 159 inmates in 2011 and Qatar had only 551 prisoners in 2008 with a total population of 1.39 million. San Marino, a “micro-state” within Italy, has no inmates (its criminals typically serve their time in Italian prisons). Norwegian prisoners spend their time in post-modern Scandinavian-designed facilities with their entire prison population numbering only 3,602.


  • D E Crane

    The data here is alarming-that the US has fewer people but many more in prisons!
    Excellent article! Very informative with superb statistics!

    Diane Crane

  • Anna

    Thanks Diane! Find us on