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Digital Records of Incarceration: An Annotated Bibliography

The collection of detailed metadata on prisoners by the US prison system represents a grand-scale archival effort. Meticulously gathered and filed by state and national government agencies, as well as by judges, wardens, and guards, these records, like their subjects, remain largely concealed from public view. Our attention is drawn to the categories laid out in official paperwork, to the record-keeping systems that assign labels (or, in metadata terms, “tags”) to incarcerated individuals. It is on the basis of records that fail to provide a full and detailed picture of incarceration that critical judgments are formed by our culture. In contrast to the details shared in firsthand accounts, these data—often applied to sentencing, employment, and housing decisions—too often lead to incomplete pictures and faulty conclusions about prisoners and their experiences of incarceration. A larger story is lost—namely, the one that ties the data back to the people who have lived its details.

Thanks to initiatives like the Digital Public Library of America, and the institutions and archivists working within their hub, repositories of historical records of incarceration are increasingly accessible online. More current data is also being collected and shared by oral historians and students of public history, some of whom create and maintain digital spaces where prisoners can tell their own stories through audio and video interviews and other online exhibits. Other less formally executed projects have also developed to provide glimpses into institutional practices of incarceration, past and present.

The following annotations highlight some of the places on the web where information about incarceration circulates freely. While my archival background initially led me to academic digital projects tied to institutions invested in digital preservation and accessibility, as I researched these spaces I found that I felt drawn to projects for which questions about metadata and curation were not at the forefront. I would therefore describe the examples cited below as projects of intervention or recovery. The web makes it easy to publish documents whose circulation was once limited to the institutions that housed them. Now such documents exist alongside a range of competing narratives. These annotations seek to reflect, if broadly, some of this range—as well as to challenge the notion of an official record of incarceration.


1. The Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a centralized location from which anyone can search over 7 million digital items, including records from libraries, museums, and archives nationwide. Founded in 2010, the DPLA continues to help raise the profile of archival projects on the web, in part by providing a service hub for smaller institutions lacking the resources necessary to undertake the digitization process on their own. Though the DPLA’s metadata fields are somewhat broad, participating institutions can provide, and are encouraged to provide, additional contextual material for their shared holdings. Users can navigate these resources in a variety of ways—from interactive timelines to maps featuring items with geotagged metadata. Newcomers and experienced researchers alike will struggle to get their bearings in these vast archives; refined searches help to narrow results, but their effectiveness depends on the metadata practices of contributing libraries. As the DPLA’s practices improve, so will efforts to digitize and document our country’s cultural memory.

In my own research for records of prison culture, I came across numerous relevant items shared with the DPLA by dozens of participating institutions. Some of these institutions provide access to digitized photographs documenting the historical workings of the criminal justice system.  For example, a series of photographs taken in 1936 by Leslie Jones, then a photographer for the Boston Herald-Traveler, offers a look into Boston media coverage of two state prison escapees. The collection includes the photos that were published, as well as those that weren’t. Such access juxtaposes the sensationalized imagery one might expect in such a story—the escapee is discovered on a train, then flanked by officers, then brought to justice—with more mundane scenes of the prisoner with relaxed posture and bored expression undergoing the administrative rigmarole that follows arrest.

Digital records from The New York Public Library’s Miriam and Ida Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs include a handful of photographs from collections labeled “Prison Reform” and “‘The Pageant of America’ Collection.”  The latter, part of  “The Pageantry of America’ Photograph Archive,” a fifteen-volume series “commemorating the nation’s sesquicentennial in 1926,” includes photos of New York State Reformatory students engaged in vocational activities: stenography, carpentry, barber work, wrestling. The “pageantry” of the collection’s title may well refer to this unlikely spectacle of rough young men ostensibly transformed into productive members of society.

The Mountain West Digital Library is one of the most inclusive resources I searched. A regional portal within the larger DPLA network, it gathers material from institutions in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Hawaii, and provides access to “records of the Montana State Prison (1869-1974), the Board of Pardons (1890-1965), the Board of Prison Commissioners (1890-1962), and the United States Penitentiary, Montana Territory.”  I found myself interested in the language surrounding a “Descriptive List of the Prisoners” completed in Montana in 1934. Each record begins with a typed statement indicating, among other things, that its authors “have the honor to report” the details therein. These records were designed to strip their prisoner subjects of anything resembling “honor.” They apparently placed great value on the duties of the agents completing the paperwork.

The information collected in another field allocated for “Warden’s Remarks” follows a consistent pattern of clinical reportage, describing the observable condition of prisoners during intake—their ethnicity, tobacco use, the quality of their teeth. A large-scale data analysis of these records might reveal patterns of emphasis on the kinds of information being gathered. Or perhaps it would help to clarify the specific motives for creating this metadata in the first place. Put to use, this information might show how, at particular moments in the history of the American prison system, data collected during intake has been used to influence new policies and procedures, or even to push forward more refined record-keeping practices. While scanning the hand-written responses in these fields I was reminded of just how refined these institutional practices have become. Methods of machine reading have improved the function of information that is gathered: a brief note filed in a cabinet is far less useful than digitized data that can be quickly situated within other documents or compared across spreadsheets and more dynamic databases. Studying these records underscores the ongoing refinement of these systems. It also warns of the potential for information to be obscured, whether stored in a drawer or in a database.


2. The Guantanamo Public Memory Project

Launched in 2009, the Guantanamo Public Memory Project (GPMP) uses archival materials to create a detailed timeline of the history of the US naval station, beginning with America’s involvement in Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century. GPMP is sponsored by Columbia University’s Institution for the Study of Human Rights, though its intellectual might is spread across a range of institutions, known as “Project Partners” and “Memory and Action Partners,” that are equipped to assist in committing to cultural memory Guantanamo’s history and current events.

GPMP is intended as a community involvement project. In addition to the website, a traveling physical exhibit claims to bridge the geographic distance between American citizens and Guantanamo. The site itself includes a special feature encouraging visitors to “Shape the Debate” by offering their own commentary on the items it presents. Disappointingly, these invitations direct visitors to yes-or-no questions whose answers do not adequately shape a debate on Guantanamo’s complicated history.

In searching for more substantive archival material, I perused the “Resources” tab, which explains the project’s plans for a larger and more accessible documentary collection. One such resource, “a cookbook created by Navy wives in the early 1960s, featuring a combination of patriotic American recipes and Cuban cuisine,” reminds me that even the most seemingly innocuous documents can be viewed as records of imperialist efforts and attitudes. In fact, the cookbook is arguably an archive in itself, and one that could help us understand and reconstruct the history of US involvement in Guantanamo.

The most provocative materials archived on the GPMP site are the video and audio interviews with prisoners and guards, as well as with military officials and politicians. Substantial metadata is attached to archived interviews, though it is difficult to see the larger shape of the collection and navigate its holdings. For instance, there is no easy way to see all interviews with guards in one place. And the interview clips are often brief. Many seem like parts of longer conversations to which visitors are not given access. For example, it is startling at times to hear guards and officers stationed at Guantanamo refer to prisoners in friendly terms, given the circumstances of their shared time at the detention site. It is even more startling to hear the voices of prisoners who adopt the same tone. I find myself wanting to hear more, to dig deeper, but the material is limited in length and scope. The site, like many of its kind, is a work in progress and ideally the planned resources will transform the project from a vibrant educational resource to a more organized archival collection.


3. Public Secrets

In 2008, Sharon Daniel, a legal advocate with the activist group Justice Now, and the digital artist Erik Loyer assembled “Public Secrets,” an archive of interviews with prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility. In her author’s statement, Daniel describes the aggressive institutional and social forces that silence women prisoners at the largest female correctional facility in the United States:

Women incarcerated in California are allowed visits only from family members and legal representatives. Inmates are not allowed access to computers, cameras, tape recorders or media equipment of any kind. Such restrictions preserve the public secret.

The content of Daniel’s interviews portrays, sometimes graphically, the restrictions placed on her subjects. The conditions of their isolation are powerfully simulated in Loyer’s design. After an initial sequence contextualizing the project, visitors encounter a black-and-white page on which textual excerpts from the interviews appear and then vanish. The site encourages visitors’ attention: hover your cursor over one of these excerpts—“I guess I wasn’t worthy of protecting,” or “The prison is a no-man’s land that perforates the space of the state”—and the audio of that interview begins to play. But this same functionality challenges the degree and fidelity of the attention that is paid: move the cursor away from the excerpted text for even a moment and the audio stops, the excerpt disappears, and the interview is replaced by another. The experience can be frustrating, and it’s meant to be. Loyer’s design confronts users with a question worth pondering: “If you need to check your email while these women are speaking, then are you actually listening?” “Public Secrets” is as much an archival project as it is a tool for consciousness-raising, a call for renewed activism on behalf of the voices it makes heard.

The overall site design of “Public Secrets” and the larger Vectors Journal do not, in their current state, have an eye towards long-term preservation efforts. For example, what would happen to the stories in “Public Secrets” if the exhibit were no longer compatible with an updated version of Java? The authors and editors seem aware of such issues. At a keynote talk given at the August 2014 Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching (HILT) workshop, Tara McPherson, the founding editor of Vectors, acknowledged these technical limitations and noted that the journal has been discussing ways to keep its content accessible. While the context in which these materials are understood may change with time, the stories will hopefully continue to circulate beyond their original formatting. That said, the specific design choices that Loyer made for “Public Secrets” should not be discounted. As Loyer writes in his “Designer’s Statement,” “the design process itself […] came to resonate with the broader task of reconciling the needs of the state with the rights of the individual, with all of its concomitant messiness and imperfection.”


4. Julia Wertz

Julia Wertz, the author of several autobiographical graphic novels (Drinking at the Movies and The Infinite Wait, among others), occasionally uses her Instagram feed to document her exploration of abandoned institutional sites. She is not a trained archivist, nor is she pretending to be one, and there are long stretches during which her Instagram feed highlights other activities. Nevertheless, she occasionally posts the personal records of patient histories she unearths in addition to photographs of individuals re-admitted to hospitals. In the first series of images, we see a man whose physical condition rapidly deteriorates over the span of four years. In another post, a female patient’s sense of style noticeably evolves after three separate admissions to a facility. These images are brief glimpses of the visible effects of a life spent in institutions: the photographed individuals seem to wear the records of their tenure on their faces.

An Instagram feed can seem like an endless stream of ephemera—photographs quickly buried under a procession of new updates. Instagram’s use of hashtags as metadata seems designed for ease of use on a short-term basis, and by the site’s users more than by archivists or scholars. Wertz draws our attention to incomplete and abandoned records, images and documents that catch her eye during her urban explorations. The records Wertz unearths are scattered, and their previous significance inevitably obscured. Viewed together, the collection of incomplete documents she highlights suggests the limits of more traditional modes of record-keeping. A series of photographs taken under duress can only tell us so much about its subject, and the reasons given for re-entry reduce the details of a life and its various struggles to a generalized and more easily legible set of diagnoses. One wonders if future explorers will tour the ruins of old social media networks, taking snapshots of the records of our lives that we feel compelled to keep.


5. The Smoking Gun and “Mug Shot” sites

“The Smoking Gun” is perhaps the most recognizable brand on the web when it comes to sites that disseminate criminal records and mug shots. Started in 1997, the site generates content from official sources and Freedom of Information Act requests. While a significant amount of its content concerns celebrities and public figures, “The Smoking Gun” also re-circulates documents in its “Mug Shot Roundup” and “Stupid” crime stories features. In some instances, the full names of individuals are given alongside documents completed by arresting officers, whereas only given photographs are shown in “Mug Shot Roundups.”

Sites like “The Smoking Gun” pride themselves on keeping arrest records and criminal histories in circulation on the web: in some cases, these sites are primarily responsible for getting content online in the first place. There are financial benefits to these practices that go beyond advertising opportunities. In October 2013, the New York Times reported on a series of for-profit websites that were able to “monetize humiliation” by charging individuals with mug shots exorbitant sums to have their images removed or otherwise buried in Google searches. In response, credit card companies American Express and Discover chose to stop working with mug-shot sites to process payments. Additionally, Google modified its algorithms to demote the pay sites in searches. Of course, such developments do nothing to alter the fact that the content of sites like “The Smoking Gun” is decontextualized from the experiences of the individuals it purports to capture.


6. The Hoax

“The Hoax” (and its later incarnation, “The Exposure”) is a Facebook group made up of self-appointed Internet watchdogs. I came across “The Hoax” while researching stories about social media use by prisoners. In addition to circulating information about missing persons or criminal activity in the state of Georgia, one of the central activities of “The Hoax” seems to involve the “outing” of prisoners who are violating prison rules by posting content to Facebook.

In a 2011 Reuters story, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections described the possibility of “high ranking gang members shot-calling, ordering crimes to be committed on their behalf” via Facebook. In that same story, which highlighted Facebook’s collaboration with California officials to combat use of the site, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes announced that Facebook would “disable accounts” in violation of  “relevant U.S. laws or regulations,” along with any “inmate accounts” being “updated by someone on the outside.”

“The Hoax” posts image macros—often collages of photos posted by individual prisoners—accompanied by commentary that congratulates itself for bringing these individuals to justice. These collages align mug shots and prison ID numbers with Facebook photos that appear to have been taken in prison. The extent to which “The Hoax” communicates with local law enforcement is not clear, but several posts make reference to a Georgia Fox affiliate that did a story on “The Hoax” alerting Georgia’s Department of Corrections to these violations. “As of today we have sent over a 100 prisoner URL’s [sic] to the Georgia Department of Corrections thanks to all of you awesome Hoaxsters,” reads one message left in September 2013.

Though “The Hoax” has highlighted truly egregious examples of individuals using Facebook to taunt victims of crimes, the language used by these “Hoaxsters” in posts and comments is often crude and even racist. Prisoners are mocked for their efforts to “stay connected to the outside world.” “After all, prison is just a vacation right?” one caption reads. While it’s true that Facebook can be used by prisoners to threaten victims and witnesses, or to circulate information that aids criminal activity, the authors of “The Hoax” tend to disguise hateful speech and crude humor as expressed concern for their community. They describe the page as “sarcastically serious or seriously sarcastic,” and the page is self-labeled “Just For Fun” in Facebook’s Group classification system. The value of these exercises seems to reside in contributors’ assurances that justice is being doled out appropriately, that prisoners are not entitled to the same rights as those who follow the rules of law, and that all those behind prison walls deserve to be there.  

7. Ferguson (Various Twitter Accounts)

In the days after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an early story described the arrest, and eventual release, of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly. As Lowery recounted in real time via Twitter, on the evening of August 13, 2014, he and Reilly were arrested when “officers decided we weren’t leaving McDonalds [sic] quickly enough, shouldn’t have been taping them.” They were quickly released without charges. When Lowery asked why they were let go without charges or even a police report, he was told by an unnamed officer that he was being done “a favor.”

A number of reporters have been arrested while covering the protests in Ferguson. Poynter subsequently interviewed an NYU graduate student who was not informed of his crime by the police. The only documentation he retained was a receipt that showed the items police had held during his detention. Missouri police officers have gone on record about such arrests. For example, in a September 22 Riverfront Times story, Missouri Highway Patrol captain Ron Johnson was quoted as saying, “when we do take you into custody and we have found out you’re a journalist, we’ve taken the proper action.” Several other stories have highlighted that the presence of “citizen journalists” can create challenges and expose the practices of arresting officers at events like the Ferguson protests. Confusion created by the presence of “citizen journalists” can also create difficulties for journalists seeking a more official standing while pursuing investigation at such events.

Storify accounts and embedded Tweets made it easy for me to access Lowery’s version of events in the months after they took place. And many journalists would argue that Twitter has helped to clarify their standing with arresting officers. Still, Lowery remains concerned about the absence of documentation, such as police reports, that would serve as the only evidence of arrests of journalists by officers. While the record of events on Twitter provides a narrative that counters official documentation of the events at Ferguson, the impact of this narrative is dependent on long-term preservation efforts by activists and archivists working to ensure that records are created, stored, and made accessible.

Jim McGrath is a doctoral candidate in Northeastern University’s English Department and Project Co-Director on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, a crowdsourced project sponsored by Northeastern University that features stories, images, and other media related to the 2013 bombings and their aftermath. While the events of the 2013 bombings received (and continue to receive) significant media coverage, the vast majority of individual reactions to these events at the local, national, and global level were scattered across social media networks, or circulated no further than dinner tables and dorm rooms. Our Marathon was established on the belief that “no story is too small,” and that the collection and preservation of cultural memory can help toward healing a community. In order to gather, record, and create metadata for these “smaller” stories, McGrath and his colleagues have undertaken extensive public outreach and digital preservation efforts. He can be contacted by email at or via Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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