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Going straight

Old data is being used in new ways, to question the effectiveness of prison.

Digital Panopticon – the project takes its name from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s proposal for a new kind of jail, with cells radiating from a central point, so that inmates could have the eyes of the authorities continuously upon them.

The idea didn’t took a while to take off. But in the record-keeping of eighteenth and nineteenth-century penal institutions we can see a similar kind of surveillance increasingly going on, with an unprecedented amount of information being recorded regarding the physical characteristics, personal histories and behaviour of felons, from the colour of their eyes and hair, to their height and build, and their levels of literacy, their occupation prior to arrest, and their religion.

Why this obsessive concern with detail? For Bob Shoemaker, who is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History at the University of Sheffield, ‘far more information was collected than could be used at the time, and we still don’t know exactly why it was gathered. Some of it may have been to keep track of convicts who escaped, to influence sentencing decisions, or to understand their reasons for offending and re-offending. But more than that, there seems to have been an impulse to count, classify and document, almost for its own sake. Often this impulse came from prison officials themselves: it wasn’t something that was imposed on them from above.’

A new kind of scrutiny

What this record-keeping has left us with is a collection of extraordinarily rich sources of information about eighteenth and nineteenth century criminals. And through digital technology, we’re able now to manipulate and connect up this data, and use it to understand the convicts concerned, much more than was possible at the time.

This is what the Digital Panopticon project is all about. Through a collaboration between historians in the UK and in Australia, it draws together more than thirty large datasets, relating to some 90,000 convicts. Digital Panopticon relies in particular on another AHRC-funded project, Old Bailey Online, which since 2003 has transformed an obscure series of 200,000 Old Bailey trial reports, published between the 1670s and 1913, into a formidable digital resource.

By matching all this data up, Digital Panopticon lets us see not just who convicts were, and not just what happened to them after they were caught and sentenced, or even what happened after their punishments came to an end: whether or not they found themselves back committing crime. Now we can even look at the fortunes of their descendants, and see the long-term effects of what happened to them.

Best behind bars?

And in particular, we can use the data to ask: which was more effective, keeping criminals in jail, or transporting them to the colonies? For several decades in the 1800s, imprisonment and transportation were used side by side, as alternative methods of punishment. But as Digital Panopticon is beginning to show, of the tens of thousands of people who were sentenced at the Old Bailey, there are big differences between those who were kept behind bars, and those who found themselves in places like Tasmania – differences in terms of their health, their likelihood of re-offending, their subsequent employment, and their long-term family prospects.

According to Professor Barry Godfrey, who is Faculty Research Lead in Humanities and Social Sciences at Liverpool University, ‘prison was seriously bad for your health. You died earlier. Even your children were shorter.’ The transportees tended to be healthier, and they were more likely to get married and live productive lives after their sentences ended. Transportation clearly seems to have been more effective, in other words, even though it tended to be reserved for the more serious offenders. And as Barry Godfrey says, this is a finding that has been warmly received Down Under: ‘the Australians tend to see this as a re-run of the Ashes, where the descendants of the transportees triumph again.’

'The Australian see this as a re-run of the Ashes'


Two years into the project, Digital Panopticon has already contributed to a theatrical performance that was put on at the Old Bailey, in aid of trafficked women. It told the story of Mark Jeffrey, a prisoner whose case was heard in 1849: serving judges portrayed their Victorian counterparts, and the performance took place in the same Number One Court in which Jeffrey was sentenced.

The Digital Panopticon project will also result in an accessible website, which can be used by academics and professional genealogists, as well as family historians. 

And importantly, there are implications in this work for policymakers today. As Barry Godfrey says, ‘Digital Panopticon shows how the humanities can have an input into social policy – in this case, regarding the question of what’s most effective in terms of rehabilitating criminals. If we can show that some regimes work better than others, we can help to reduce the enormous cost of crime, and of keeping people in prison.’

For Bob Shoemaker too, the project is raising awareness of the limitations of imprisonment as a means of rehabilitation: ‘transportation is not an option for policymakers now, but there may be elements of it that could be adapted: the change of environment that it involved, for example, or the productive work under close supervision.’ Already, data from the Digital Panopticon project is being used with young offenders, to give them a sense of how their lives might unfold over time, and how their decisions have long-term consequences.

Big Data

Finally, the Digital Panopticon project shows something of the contribution that the AHRC has made, in its first ten years, in developing the Big Data/ digital agenda in the UK.

As Barry Godfrey says, ‘this project in particular demonstrates how the humanities can lend themselves to large-scale data analysis. The AHRC has really been leading the way in this, among the Research Councils [Digital Panopticon is supported as part of the AHRC’s Digital Transformations programme], and it continues to do so. They should be commended for it.’

For Bob Shoemaker too, ‘Digital Panopticon has been made possible by the huge success of the Old Bailey Online project, which has enabled so many research projects on diverse subjects. We didn’t specify how the Old Bailey archive would be used – it shows that you don’t always know, at the outset, all the benefits that will come from a project like this. But the AHRC had the courage to back it, and they’ve shown that courage consistently over their first ten years.’


Among the details that were recorded by prison authorities are those relating to the tattoos that criminals had. As such, Digital Panopticon is providing an insight into an inky iconography that goes back centuries: blue dots on the knuckles, for example, related to the number of times that their owners had been in prison. Swallows meant that someone had travelled 10,000 miles by sea – as was the case with most transported convicts. Often it is by their tattoos that we’re able to match up the details of individual felons, when they’d adopted false names. And as Barry Godfrey says, while criminals were having all kinds of information recorded about them, ‘it was their bodies that became their records.’

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