Presumption of Guilt: 15 Arresting Facts about the Overuse of Pretrial Detention

There are an estimated 3.3 million people in jails around the world awaiting trial, or the finalization of a trial, at any one time—roughly a third of the world’s prison population. Many of those held are innocent of the charges they are facing; many more present no genuine threat to the public.

Below are 15 more arresting facts about the excessive use of pretrial detention:

  1. The world’s current population of pretrial detainees will spend 640 million days behind bars. (It took an estimated 52 million worker days to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and just 875,000 worker days to build the Empire State Building).
  2. In Nigeria, the average detention time is 3.7 years.
  3. In January 2005, Jagivan Ram Yadav was released from pretrial detention in India, after 38 years behind bars (his file had been lost).
  4. In 2013, Sikiru Alade was released from pretrial detention in the Nigerian capital Lagos after nine years (he was held on suspicion of armed robbery, but was never charged).
  5. Panama has the highest pretrial detention rate in the world, with a rate of 271 detainees per 100,000 people.
  6. The United States has the world’s fourth largest detainee population, with 140 pretrial prisoners per 100,000 people, driven by the high number of arrests on minor drug possession charges (many detainees are released after a few days).
  7. In the Americas, the number of detainees per 100,000 people is twice the global figure (107 against 50), and more than three times the number in Africa (34).
  8. Speed of processing may reduce pretrial populations, but it doesn’t guarantee justice. Japan has the world’s lowest pretrial detainee population, with just 5.5 per 100,000 people. But its police and courts rely heavily on confessions, often extracted without the presence of a lawyer.
  9. Confessions make police work easier, and torture produces confessions (even from the innocent). A 2011 survey of pretrial detainees in Ghana found that almost half (49 percent) had been tortured after arrest; three-quarters of this group said it had been done to extract a confession.
  10. Pretrial detainees in parts of Indonesia have been asked to pay “rent,” money for electricity and laundry, and a “peace settlement” fee to avoid being beaten or harassed by guards.
  11. In 2012, 360 prisoners died in a fire at the overcrowded Comayagua prison in Honduras; around two thirds of the jail’s 800 prisoners were awaiting trial.
  12. Suicide rates among pretrial detainees are 10 times higher than among the general population (for convicted prisoners the rate is three times higher than the general population).
  13. Pretrial detainees, unlike convicted prisoners, are not segregated according to their proclivity for violence. In countries that lack a juvenile justice system, including Pakistan, Ukraine, Nigeria, Nepal, and Belarus, young people and adults detainees are often locked up together, increasing the risks of violence and abuse.    
  14. Pretrial detainees are often released once they do get to court. In Chile, between 2005 and 2010, less than a quarter of pretrial detainees were convicted and sent to prison. In England and Wales and in New Zealand, one in five pretrial detainees are eventually acquitted.
  15. Giving suspects early access to a lawyer helps reduce unnecessary pretrial detention. Lawyers are not always easy to find. Malawi has 15.5 million people, but only 18 legal aid lawyers. Liberia has 3.8m people, and only 21 public defenders. Zambia’s legal aid board has 21 lawyers, serving 13 million people. Brazil’s Sao Paolo had only three pretrial public defenders available in 2011 to serve over 2,000 people being detained every month.

For more information, read Presumed Guilty: the Global Overuse of Pretrial Detention, the first-ever global survey of pretrial detention and its impacts, published by the Open Society Justice Initiative. 

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