Abuse of preventive detention in Europe

Una Rebić/Pod črto

Few events are as traumatic as arrival in prison. In an instant, the individual is stripped of everything that defines him or her and plunged into a world where he or she has no control over anything. For many, the first steps in the prison environment are a period of great vulnerability. And for a large proportion of detainees – more than one in five in Europe in 2021 – these first steps are taken in pre-trial detention.

Pre-trial detention was originally intended as an exceptional and temporary measure, yet its use has nevertheless increased in recent years in Europe, due to a relatively vague legal framework, the slowness of the judicial systems and a hardening of the security discourse – particularly in public opinion. But the decision to detain an individual on remand should not be taken lightly.

EDJNet gathered extensive data and multiple testimonies from all Europe in order to shed some light on this poorly-documented, often forgotten social phenomenon. 

Main findings:

  • 100,000 people across the EU are waiting in jail for their judgement.
  • In the beginning of 2021, more than one in five people in European prisons were in pre-trial detention.
  • Apart from the consequences on family life, work and economic stability, imprisonment has dire consequences on mental health ranging from adaptive disorders to suicide.
  • In theory, the rules for pre-trial detention are fairly limited, even though they vary slightly between countries. But they have proven to be very open to interpretation – especially in contexts where it’s easier for judges to justify imprisonment rather than release.
  • A partial explanation for the wide-spread use of pre-trial detention might lie in the social representations of prison and criminals, a narrative that partially stems from growing populism and political opportunism.

The data unit

Eva Belmonte (Civio, coordinator) 
is a Spanish journalist expert in investigating and processing public information and data. She designs, develops and edits all of Civio's projects. In 2019 Eva was awarded a Data Journalism Award  for her personal portfolio.
EDJNet members which took part in this investigation:


People waiting for a final sentence often suffer worse conditions than convicted prisoners, even if they're innocent.

In Europe there were 17.5 suicides per 10,000 people in pretrial detention in 2021, while the proportion was 8.54 deaths in the rest of the prison population.

Danijoy Pontes, 23 years old, was sent to pre-trial detention in 2020, for a total of 11 months. He died in a Lisbon prison: Divergente dug his story as part of EDJNet's investigation on the abuse and risks of pre-trial detention in Europe.

The suicide rate in Balkan prisons is low compared to the rest of Europe, in part because of the different composition of the prison population.

One in five people jailed in the European Union hasn't been convicted of a crime — including 12,000 in Germany alone. Studies suggest that pretrial detention is unnecessary in most cases.

With large prisoner numbers and detention times far in excess of European averages, pre-trial detention is being abused by the Greek justice system.