Prison Europe

Visualising the Council of Europe's annual penal statistics

May 2022

A new job left me with precious little time for any serious side-viz this year but having got my Tableau mojo back, I felt like it was time to tackle a more serious topic.

The dataset I stumbled on was featured in the Data is Plural newsletter and reveals over 1.4 million people are currently locked up in Europe...

The East / West divide is obvious.

Russia locks up more of its citizens than any other member of the Council of Europe's 47 states. A staggering 482,000 people are in Russian jails. On a per capita that's 330 inmates for every 100,000 people, nearly 3 times more than Western European countries and twice the global average.

However if we continue the per capita theme, Russia isn't the worst offender.

Turkey takes that dubious honour. It jails 351 inmates per 100,000 people and its prisons are also the most over-crowded: They squeeze 292,000 prisoners into a system who's official capacity is just 233,000.

So far no surprise. Authoritarian regimes incarcerate lots of people.

We shouldn't be lulled into thinking Western Europe is a shining light of penal excellence. When we measure density (number of inmates versus prison capacity) the West runs tight. France, Italy, Romania and Greece have more people inside than they officially have space for and many other countries run close.

The UK's prisons are 96% full.

The UNODC acknowledges over-crowding is a difficult problem to measure but lack of capacity introduces its own issues: Efficiently moving prisoners to the right facility (e.g. by seriousness of crime, geography or special needs) is difficult in systems that are near or beyond capacity.

My personal learning from the dataset was that prison policy is a vastly complex topic. Even the experts have a hard time creating effective measures for it.

There's also very little public attention - and viz - on the issue. This seems wrong given the scale of the numbers and the stories behind them. Out of sight, out of mind?

Making this visualisation

I used my current favourite tools to create this: Tableau + Figma

On the Tableau side, a technique I loved most was the use of native radio buttons and sheet swaps. These create a pleasing interactive allowing us to switch between a map view, ranking bar chart and an inmate scatter plot.

This allows us to get much more out of the screen space available.

In terms of design, I went with a moody dark theme. This is prison after all. I was most pleased with the downlighter effect on the KPIs, created using a custom background made in Figma.

Photo credits: Tim Hüfner and Milad Fakurian (Unspash)