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Which country has the safest prisons?

Prisons around the world vary greatly in terms of safety and security. Some countries are able to provide relatively safe and secure prison environments, while others struggle with overcrowding, violence, and poor conditions. When evaluating prison safety, factors like inmate-on-inmate violence, inmate-on-staff violence, prison escapes, availability of medical care, corruption, and human rights violations need to be considered. Based on these metrics, here is an assessment of some of the countries believed to have the safest prison systems.


Norway is consistently ranked as having one of the safest and most humane prison systems in the world. The philosophy of the Norwegian correctional system is based on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than punishment. Some key factors that contribute to Norway’s safe prisons:

  • Low incarceration rate – Norway has an incarceration rate of about 75 per 100,000 residents, one of the lowest in the world. With fewer prisoners overall, prisons are less crowded and easier to control.
  • Focus on rehabilitation – Norwegian prisons aim to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society. This creates a more positive prison environment overall.
  • Minimal violence – Violence among inmates or against guards is very rare in Norwegian prisons. Weapons are prohibited and cells, common areas, and yards are constructed to minimize blind spots.
  • No life sentences – Norway has no life sentences or death penalty. The maximum sentence is 21 years. This gives prisoners incentive to reform themselves for eventual release.
  • Normalization principle – Prison life in Norway is designed to mimic normal life outside as much as possible. Prisoners often have their own rooms with TVs, wear their own clothes, and are able to cook their own meals. This helps reduce tensions.
  • Well-trained guards – Guards in Norwegian prisons undergo intensive training to learn to resolve conflicts and de-escalate tensions verbally rather than through force.


Much like its neighbor Norway, Iceland also scores very high marks for its safe and progressive prison system, which focuses on rehabilitation and skill-building for inmates. Some factors that make Iceland’s prisons safe include:

  • Open prisons – Many prisons in Iceland have minimal security features. Some are even open, with no fences keeping inmates confined. This speaks to the peaceful nature of these facilities.
  • Educational opportunities – Icelandic prisons provide educational and vocational opportunities to inmates, which helps them become productive members of society upon release. This incentivizes good behavior.
  • Normalization – As in Norway, Icelandic prisons try to simulate normal life, with inmates wearing their own clothes and having access to TVs, computers, and other privileges. This prevents boredom and restlessness.
  • Small country – Iceland’s tiny population of just 364,000 reduces overall prison population and allows more resources to be dedicated to each inmate’s rehabilitation and care.
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Sweden is admired for its humane prison system focused on rehabilitation and integration. The country closed all of its traditional prisons in favor of open corrections facilities. Key factors for Sweden’s safe prisons include:

  • Open facilities – Many of Sweden’s prison facilities have no barricades or armed guards. Prisoners prepare their own meals and wear their own clothes. Escape attempts are rare under these conditions.
  • Rehabilitative activities – Swedish prisoners have access to educational opportunities, vocational training, therapy, and leisure activities like sports to occupy their time in a productive way.
  • Focus on re-entry – Sweden aims to smoothly reintegrate prisoners back into society through transitional housing, job training, and community support. This incentivizes good behavior while incarcerated.
  • Small prison population – At around 6,000 total prisoners for a population of 10 million, Sweden has one of the smallest prison populations per capita in Europe. This allows more resources to be dedicated to rehabilitation and care.


Singapore is renowned for its low crime rates and safe, orderly society. Its prison system reflects many of the same principles of discipline as the rest of the country. Singapore’s safe prisons include:

  • Tight security – Singapore’s prisons have perimeters secured with walls, fences, lights, and CCTV surveillance. Inside there are security gates, regular patrols, and restrictions on prisoner movement.
  • Routine – Singaporean prisons run on a strict schedule and prisoners are expected to keep themselves and their living areas clean at all times. Infractions result in denial of privileges.
  • Work programs – Prison labor is used to provide routine, keep prisoners occupied, and teach marketable skills. Prisons operate bakeries, gardens, workshops, and other vocational programs.
  • Rehabilitation – Despite the regimented conditions, Singapore claims its prisons also aim to rehabilitate inmates through counseling, education programs, and religious guidance.
  • Corporal punishment – Singapore allows punishments like caning for serious breaches of prison rules. While controversial, authorities claim it quickly addresses rule breaking.
  • Death penalty – Singapore has a mandatory death penalty for serious drug trafficking and murder convictions. Authorities argue this harsh sentencing significantly deters major crimes.


Germany has a reputation for order, discipline, and low crime rates. Its prisons aim to strike a balance between punitive and rehabilitative incarceration. Factors contributing to Germany’s safe prisons include:

  • Low incarceration rates – Germany incarcerates about 78 per 100,000 residents, comparable to other European countries. Lower prisoner populations make facilities easier to control.
  • Modern facilities – Many prisons in Germany have been recently constructed with modern safety features and adequate space for programs and recreation.
  • Vocational training – Prison work programs aim to teach inmates marketable skills that will help them secure employment after release and reduce recidivism.
  • Privileges for good behavior – German prisoners who follow rules and participate in vocational programs are rewarded with expanded visitation, furloughs, recreational activities, and wages.
  • Preventative detention – Germany allows dangerous and high-risk offenders to be preventatively detained after completing their original sentences through a civil procedure.
  • Therapy and counseling – Rehabilitative therapy and counseling are available to address inmates’ psychological issues and prepare them to re-enter society.
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Canada has a reputation for being safe, orderly, and humane – qualities that also characterize the country’s prison system. Factors contributing to safe prisons in Canada include:

  • Low levels of violence – Canadian prisons have relatively low levels of violence compared to other Western nations. Severe assaults and homicide are rare.
  • Focus on rehabilitation – Canadian prisons aim to provide education, vocational training, counseling, and psychotherapy to address inmates’ needs and prepare them for release.
  • Community corrections – Many offenders serve all or part of their sentence in the community under strict supervision as an alternative to incarceration. This eases prison populations.
  • Independent oversight – Canada has an independent civilian prison ombudsman to investigate complaints and advocate for prisoners’ rights and fair treatment.
  • Halfway houses – Canada makes extensive use of halfway houses for graduated release of offenders back into the community prior to the expiry of their sentence. This helps ease re-entry.
  • Advanced security – Canadian prisons employ modern surveillance, security technology, emergency response teams, and goose-detecting dogs to quickly identify and resolve security breaches.

Related Questions

What country has the most dangerous prisons?

Some countries notorious for dangerous, overcrowded, and inhumane prisons include:

  • Brazil – Severe overcrowding leads to gang violence and riots in Brazil’s underfunded, chaotic prison system.
  • Mexico – Mexico’s prisons are hotbeds of drug and gang violence fueled by corruption and incompetent management.
  • Philippines – Extreme overcrowding in Philippine prisons leads to outbreaks of deadly diseases and frequent violence.
  • Venezuela – Venezuela’s prisons are lawless and grossly overcrowded, with gangs controlling most aspects of life inside.
  • Bangladesh – Violence, escapes, poor conditions, and overcrowding are common in Bangladesh’s understaffed, crumbling prisons.

What country has the biggest prison population?

The United States has the largest total prison population in the world at over 2 million. Other countries with large prison populations include China, Brazil, Russia, and India. However, the U.S. also leads in per capita incarceration rate at 655 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

What country has the smallest prison population?

Some countries and autonomous regions with the smallest prison populations include:

  • San Marino – Just 7 prisoners total in this tiny enclaved European state.
  • Liechtenstein – Around 20 prisoners on average in the small European principality.
  • Turkmenistan – Approximately 21,000 prisoners in this sparsely populated Central Asian nation.
  • Åland Islands – This Finnish autonomous province has just around 25 prisoners with its tiny population of 29,000.
  • Greenland – Home to around 130 prisoners with only about 56,000 residents.
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Which Scandinavian country has the most liberal prison system?

Norway is regarded as having the most liberal prison system in Scandinavia with no life sentences, open prisons, focus on rehabilitation over punishment, and the normalization principle mimicking life on the outside. Denmark and Sweden also have very progressive prison systems aiming to reintegrate rather than punish.

Quotes on Prison Safety from Corrections Experts

“A well-functioning prison system effectively handles issues of security and inmate accountability while also focusing strongly on rehabilitation and skills training to reduce recidivism.” – Andrea Cabral, former Secretary of Public Safety for Massachusetts

“The degree of safety and order in a prison system ultimately relies on inmates perceiving that staff are present, fair, consistent and humane in their oversight.” – Martin Horn, Distinguished Lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice

“Safety in a prison environment depends on far more than guards, gates, and guns. It requires skilled officers, productive activities for inmates, and a climate of mutual respect between staff and prisoners.” – Rick Raemisch, former Executive Director of Colorado Department of Corrections

“Violence, abuse, and inhumane conditions fester in prisons that disregard inmates’ basic human rights and dignity. A facility focused on safety is focused on human rights.” – Dr. Michael Puisis, correctional medicine expert at University of Illinois Chicago

“When prisons are seen as places for rehabilitation rather than just punishment, a less confrontational climate emerges that helps keep both guards and prisoners safer.” – Dr. Francis Cullen, distinguished research professor at University of Cincinnati

“Transparency, independent oversight, and public scrutiny are essential for preventing abuses and ensuring prisons comply with international safety standards and norms for the treatment of prisoners.” – Dr. Madeline Morgan, Senior Policy Advisor for UN Office on Drugs and Crime


In examining the critical issue of prison safety worldwide, Norway represents the pinnacle of a correctional system able to maintain exemplary standards through a rehabilitative approach centered on normalcy, education, skill-building, and humane treatment of inmates. Nations like Iceland, Sweden, Germany, and Canada have also adopted progressive policies enabling safer prison environments. Conversely, severe overcrowding, harsh sentencing, lack of oversight, and inadequate funding detract from safety in the notoriously dangerous prisons of Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Bangladesh and elsewhere. With global prison populations expanding, all nations face the challenge of securing adequate resources and adopting evidence-based practices allowing prisons to fulfill their objectives safely and humanely. Ultimately, the research strongly supports that safety in prisons depends far more on good management, qualified staff, and a climate of mutual respect than it does on implements of force alone.

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