Prison is an important and integral part of the criminal justice system in every country. Used appropriately it plays a crucial role in upholding the rule of law by helping to ensuring that alleged offenders are brought to justice and by providing a sanction for serious wrongdoing. At best prisons should be able to  offer a humane experience with opportunities for prisoners to obtain assistance and help with rehabilitation.

At their worst prisons can be sites of appalling suffering, incubators of disease or mere warehouses from which prisoners return to society poorly equipped to lead a law abiding life.

There is enormous variation in the way the world’s ten million prisoners are treated. Some young men do drill in military style boot camps while others are counselled   in therapeutic communities. Prisoners deemed dangerous may be held in almost total isolation in the highest “supermax” conditions of security; low risk prisoners approaching their date of release go out to work during the day from open establishments. Some convicted prisoners can spend years in remote labour colonies, pre trial detainees a few weeks in city centre lock ups or many years beyond legal guarantees and amongst sentenced prisoners.

The experience of very many prisoners- perhaps the majority – continues routinely to involve often gross violations of basic human rights and seemingly makes scant contribution to either the rule of law or to the creation of safer communities. The failings of prisons often reflect chronic problems of maladministration, chiefly under resourcing in terms of buildings and staff, compounded by often severe overcrowding and weak management and accountability.

In principle these are matters that can be put right.  But there is an often unspoken question: How much are the obvious failings of imprisonment due to inherent flaws in the nature of institution itself rather than weaknesses in its practical elaboration?

While much more attention needs to be paid to finding new ways of preventing and responding to crime, in the short term priorities would seem to include ensuring prison is used as a last resort and  for the shortest possible time; minimising the use of pre trial detention especially in Africa , South Asia and Latin America; modernising national prison laws and rules which sometimes date from colonial times; and while applying existing international standards and working towards an updated and comprehensive framework of norms across the globe.

For prison administrations, the collation, flow and analysis of information are key for policy development, budgeting and resource allocation, sentence management, ensuring access to justice and provision of appropriate specialised services. While there is much to gained by the use of information management systems, these will only facilitate good practice based on the collation and use of valid, reliable  data and work best in locations where there is suitable infrastructure and adequately trained staff.

Prison services and line ministries need to have a clear understanding of the ‘stock and flow’ of the prison population to enable them to plan and budget for their operations. Furthermore, sentence planning and the provision of appropriate services, educational, recreational, health and legal are very much more likely to happen where reception and record procedures are sound, confidential where necessary, sustained and used efficiently.

In southern Sudan the prison service operates  with almost no reliable information on the prison population or its own staff. A priority for a UNODC Prison project there has been  to enhance the ability of the Prison Service to collect, retain and use prison data to effectively manage the prison system.


For individual prisons,  keeping  accurate information about prisoners is essential.  Prisons must ensure that they do not receive anyone into detention without a valid order from a judge. They must keep a record of the details of each detainee.

As a minimum the record must include:

  • The personal details of the detainee (for example, date of birth, weight, height, name, gender)
  • The reasons for detention
  • The judicial authority who approved the detention
  • The day and time of detention
  • The date of release and the date of any court appearance

Further information On Prison Overcrowding click here

On Best Practices in Prison Survey of United Nations and other Best Practices in the Treatment of Prisoners in the Criminal Justice System, click here

On Pre Trial Detention, click here