IDB study highlights ways to reduce prison population in the Caribbean

A new Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study highlights ways to increase public safety in the Caribbean by focusing on reducing pre-trial detentions and expanding rehabilitation and reintegration programs for incarcerated persons. The report analyses survey data collected from both sentenced and remanded individuals in six Caribbean countries from 2016-2019, The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. In these countries, the average prison population is 93 percent male and the average age of inmates is 33 years old.

Unconvicted prisoners constitute a large portion of the prison population in the Caribbean. The study shows these pre-trial detainees spend an average of 2.5 to 4 years in prison before sentencing, often in worse conditions than those already convicted of a crime. Individuals in pre-trial detention were also found to have experienced higher levels of victimization and violence compared to sentenced individuals. Pre-trial detainees reported higher rates of victimization in almost all countries under study, except for Barbados and Suriname.

Data shows that inmates on provisional detention are more likely to live in overcrowded circumstances than sentenced prisoners. For example, in The Bahamas, 77 percent of pretrial detainees lived in overcrowded conditions compared to 62 percent of sentenced individuals. A similar case is observed in Trinidad and Tobago where 51 percent of people on remand live in cramped facilities compared with 23 percent of sentenced individuals.

The Report also highlights the impact of not having effective or sufficient prison rehabilitation and reintegration programs in the Caribbean. In aggregate terms, 41 percent of inmates surveyed in the six countries of the study were recidivists or repeat offenders compared to 33 percent of Latin American prison populations. In the Caribbean, roughly 40 percent of recidivists return to prison within six months to one year of release depending on the country. Also, less than 1 in 5 prisoners has access to rehabilitation and reentry services, which have been shown to reduce recidivism and repeat offending.

In order to increase the effectiveness of penitentiary policies, the report recommends broad reforms that take an integrated approach to security and justice in the Caribbean. Key recommendations include establishing programs to divert people who have committed non-serious offenses, and reforming judicial procedures and strengthening pre- and post-release services, among others.  

The COVID-19 health crisis has highlighted the impact of prisons on the society, as many prisons have become transmission hotspots. The study underscores this finding and advocates new ways of reducing prison populations with creative approach to justice and rehabilitation.

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The Inter-American Development Bank is devoted to improving lives. Established in 1959, the IDB is a leading source of long-term financing for economic, social and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The IDB also conducts cutting-edge research and provides policy advice, technical assistance and training to public and private sector clients throughout the region.

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Diana King
IDB Project Team Leader