Prisoners Ignored in International Development Policy

face of a prisoner

Work on human development has emphasized the capabilities that every human being, male and female, should have. An influential study on development has eloquently declared:

Human beings are the real ends of all activities, and development must be centered on enhancing their achievements, freedoms, and capabilities. It is the lives they lead that is of intrinsic importance, not the commodities or incomes they happen to possess.^

Persons in prison often have little choice in the food they eat and the clothes they wear. They typically do not have the freedom to move beyond the confines of a single building, or even within that building. Their opportunities to meet other persons and to learn about the world are highly constrained. With respect to human capabilities, prisoners are among the poorest of the poor.

The United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) is a leading quantitative measure of human development. The HDI measures three dimensions of human development:

leading a long and healthy life, measured by life expectancy at birth; being knowledgeable, measured by literacy and school enrollment; and having a decent standard of living, measured by GDP per capita ^

These measures of human development indicate persons’ capabilities to exercise freedom. As a United Nations Human Development Report has emphasized, “Human development is about freedom.”^ Being confined in prison highly constrains persons’ freedom.

The Human Development Index correlates positively with the prevalence of imprisonment across jurisdictions worldwide. Across 182 jurisdictions covering 98% of the world’s population, the HDI for 2011 has quartiles 0.52, 0.70, and 0.80. A 0.10 increase in the HDI is associated with a 21% increase in the prevalence of imprisonment. The HDI is even more strongly correlated with the prevalence of imprisonment controlling for region and income-group fixed (level) effects on imprisonment prevalence. Imprisonment prevalence might increase human development of the non-imprisoned population (most of the population) through increases in their personal security. More realistically, states with strong public administrative capacity are likely both to foster better human development outside of prison and to hold a larger number of persons in prison.

Despite prisoners’ significance to ideals of human development, prisoners are largely invisible in international development policy. The human development of prisoners is much more directly related to public policies than human development of persons generally. The HDI’s positive correlation with imprisonment prevalence deserves careful consideration. Acknowledging significant human trade-offs in human development is a step toward making those trade-offs as just and humane as possible.

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