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In my fantasy world, criminals who have committed serious crimes are sent to an island called "Yaehlbuhn". This island, quite far from any continents, is essentially an open prison where criminals can live in almost total freedom.

Law enforcement is present but only act when large conflicts breaks out. They are pretty brutal and don't really care about bystanders and such, after all, everyone on this island is supposed to be a criminal unless proven otherwise.

Enough exposition, here is my question.

I need a reliable way to identify people who were sent to the Yaehlbuhn or live there. The general idea would be that, in case someone were to escape, anyone would be able to tell that this person comes from the island.

I thought about tattoos at first, but depending on the size, you can hide it pretty easily, you could even remove your skin to erase it permanently. (If you are really determined.)

I would also need to find a way to identify people who are on Yaehlbuhn for lawful reasons. (such as Guards, officials or any other visitors) As you can imagine, it should not be easy to reproduce.

The government has access to pretty much anything, but low-cost/low-tech (and cool) options are appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35, That's too general. Lazy workers could get confused for Serial killers ;) $\endgroup$ – Dastardly Sep 11 '17 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ Hmmm ... Sounds like early colonization of Australia $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 11 '17 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ Fair warning - answers below tend to go into the "101 flavours of bodily mutilation" territory, so don't read these if you're squeamish. $\endgroup$ – Dragomok Sep 11 '17 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Purple hair and punk clothes for the island and preppy clothes for the mainlanders. Um, I may have seen Descendants one too many times. :) $\endgroup$ – Mazel Sep 11 '17 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ Just OOC, is this prison single sex? Because if not, no matter what sort of marking you devise, you're going to end up with unmarked individuals born on the island. Does your society punish them for their parents' sins? Are the children found and taken away from their parents? Are they reunited when the parents have served their term (assuming it's not a life term)? $\endgroup$ – ShadowRanger Sep 12 '17 at 0:39

15 Answers 15

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Silver Dust

Exposure to silver dust/colloidal silver eventually turns your entire skin blue.

...permanently.

The condition is called Argyria.

enter image description here

Paul Karason turned blue after extensive use of colloidal silver

It is an essentially harmless condition but there is no way you can mask it. Even the whites of your eye turn dark.

So... confine your prisoners and have them breathe silver dust, or let them drink something that has very fine particles of silver in it. Once their skin turns dark, off to Yaehlbuhn they go.

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    $\begingroup$ This... just yes. It is oddly fulfilling knowing that there are real life Smurfs walking about. $\endgroup$ – Gogeta70 Sep 12 '17 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ It's not much silver because silver is toxic and cannot be taken in big amounts, argyria takes some time to accumulate. There are some substances which do cause coloring: beta carotine in carrots causing reversible carotenosis and substances attacking the liver could cause jaundice. You could introduce some plant or mineral in your world which causes the permanent discoloration. $\endgroup$ – Thorsten S. Sep 12 '17 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ I like @ThorstenS. 's idea of simply introducing a plant or mineral; something that is rare enough that people wouldn't be exposed to it accidentally, and from which only intentional high exposure would cause discoloration. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Sep 13 '17 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @DoktorJ: Plus it kinda nice for the plot that some people are likely to be exposed accidentally (for example, the workers collecting the stuff), and whenever they wander outside will be subjected to all kinds of grief. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Sep 13 '17 at 6:23
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    $\begingroup$ I also like the idea of having this be an atmospheric effect of your island. Guards could be issued special food or water to keep them from being affected. It would create a huge impetus for any escape attempt to happen very soon after incarceration, before the effect kicks in. It would also set up the possibility of a black market in the off-island food/water, to prolong the window of non-smurfiness. $\endgroup$ – 1006a Sep 14 '17 at 6:59
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A brand.

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_branding

Brand marks have also been used as a punishment for convicted criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (greatest if marked on a normally visible part of the body) which is here the more important intention, and with the imposition of an indelible criminal record. Robbers, like runaway slaves, were marked by the Romans with the letter F (fur); and the toilers in the mines, and convicts condemned to figure in gladiatorial shows, were branded on the forehead for identification. Under Constantine I the face was not permitted to be so disfigured, the branding being on the hand, arm or calf.

I like that Constantine said that the face was too much. One does not think of the Byzantines as being especially humane when it comes to punishments.

A brand can also convey information: for example, what exactly the crime was that earned the person a trip to the island. A brand does not reduce functionality in the way that taking an eye, hand or cheek would.

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    $\begingroup$ What about the lawful ones ? Shall we brand them too ? ^^ $\endgroup$ – Dastardly Sep 11 '17 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, don't get me started on the Byzzies. They were metal AF, and often went ... overboard. One day they were feeling like they weren't quite badass enough, so they invented napalm. And they hired an army of Vikings just to up their awesome factor. Okay, back on topic ... I do think branding is the way to go if the populace is stern enough to allow it. It's hard to remove, and gets the point across. Guards and such can be identified by the lack of "I am a crook" brands. $\endgroup$ – akaioi Sep 11 '17 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @LéonDonnet-Monay Wouldn't absence of the brand be an identifier? $\endgroup$ – Kevin Sep 11 '17 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin Guards could be coerced and corrupted by the threat of branding. They need their own positive ID. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Sep 12 '17 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Clearer When the branding iron has a more elaborate design, it might be hard to counterfeit with the tools available to the prisoners. Possession of such a counterfeit branding iron would certainly be a capital offense, so manufacturing one would be a quite high risk for very little reward (if you hate a guard and have the means to subdue them, you could just as well kill them). $\endgroup$ – Philipp Sep 13 '17 at 14:16
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Scarification - give them a big scar on the face, their hands, their feet, ...

This would be very hard to hide and it would be obvious that someone is trying to hide it. Scarring someone shouldn't require too much skill and is pretty low-cost and low-tech. Scarification has the added advantage to be easily visible on all kinds of skin color, so you wouldn't have to vary with your design. To cite the linked Wikipedia article:

Most people in certain regions of Africa who have "markings" can be identified as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group.

This is very close to what you want to achieve:

I need a reliable way to identify people who were sent to the Yaehlbuhn or live there.

Possible methods of scarification include:

  • Human Branding, which was for example used to
    • mark the rightless
    • punish outlaws
  • Cutting, for example by
    • Packing: making a cut and putting ash inside the cut so that the resulting scar is raised (Hypertrophic Scar)
    • skin removal of patches
  • Abrasion

I recommend something obviously man-made. A big hyptertrophic "Y" on the right cheek with a three dots of removed skin up, left and right representing law, your crime and the fact that you were sent to the island and a thin circle around all this. Obviously the specific details depend on your story, but it should be identifiable as a sort of mark and not easily hidden.

Depending on how serious the crime is you could for example add more dots or whatever symbol you choose. Extending the scar to other body parts, such as the hands, could imply things like murder and rape. There are a lot of possibilities.

This could become some form of code that could be used to identify different criminals. It's also a good way to form groups in a narrative by calling them the "Ys" to refer to my example above or the "Half-Moons" or the "Crosses" or whatever designs suits your needs and best describes the group of criminals you want to show.

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You want to leave a mark, but let's try to avoid mutilating and otherwise making useless potential future reformed members of society. So how do we do this?

Alopecia

Various toxicans can induce hairloss, including permentant and complete hairloss. An individual withnot even a strand of peach fuzz will be noticeable though its more subtle then a missing ear.

Scleral Tattooing

Want something more striking, how about a scleral tattoo? You can't remove an eye tattoo without obvious and severe side effects and different colored eyes can be used to separate prisoners from staff.

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  1. Historically, branding was used for this purpose. Branding someone on the neck, face, hand or wrist are generally hard places to hide.

  2. Historically, collaring someone in metal tends to be very noticeable and hard to remove. (Try hacking off a collar with your neck exposed.)

  3. I don't know the technological limitations of your world but they could be chipped in the spine or other difficult location for extraction with an RFID chip. Futuristic cameras could easily identify those and sound alarms.

Going back to the collaring idea, officials could wear golden collars (or something noticeable and hard to remove without permission)

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    $\begingroup$ Golden collars are not a good idea. They are actually very simple to remove: you simply take the head off first! I doubt you want to encourage your criminals to start hacking off the heads of their guards... $\endgroup$ – Benubird Sep 11 '17 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ So the OP never said the option had to be %100 infallible, nor would i think he would want it to be. Also, it doesnt have to be gold I was simply picking something that was gaudy and noticeable. He could make it titanium with pulsating LED lights for all I care. $\endgroup$ – anon Sep 11 '17 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ As a sub point technically the collar has to be hard to put on without permission. Even if it can be removed from a guard the criminals have to be able to get it on before the theft is noticed. $\endgroup$ – P Chapman Sep 11 '17 at 15:57
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Iron Branding

In the ship going to the island, every prisioner is branded with burning iron in each side of his face, with the "sign of the thief". This deep wound would heal and leave a scar that can't be hide without looking suspicious.

Hand Chopping

Every prisioner lose his left hand up to the elbow, is a little more easy to hide it but still is really handy to detect criminals.

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    $\begingroup$ "but still is really handy" - ha. $\endgroup$ – Thebluefish Sep 11 '17 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ It would be quite awkward for some soldiers or someone who's been attacked by a wild animal and lost their arm to be mistaken for a serious criminal. $\endgroup$ – Virusbomb Sep 11 '17 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ Cutting a finger would probably be enough... (Or two non-neighbour fingers, at a specific location, if you feel sorry for injured officials.) Just sayin'... $\endgroup$ – Neinstein Sep 11 '17 at 19:37
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In the past, to clearly label people who had received the small pox vaccine, a clear scar was left on their arm.

enter image description here

This is more effective than branding (burnt wound can easily get infected), and you can also develop a code related to them (1 scar means this, 2 scars mean that, 3 scars on a line means something else, etc.)

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    $\begingroup$ The vaccine left a scar, but it wasn't done intentionally, as far as I know, to label people who had received the vaccine. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Sep 11 '17 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ They use cowpox in order to induce immunity to smallpox. It is virulent as hell, and needs to be properly kept clean and isolated from any physical contact that can allow it to spread. It is common, particularly in older versions of the vaccine, to gain a scar from it. This isn't intentional, it is merely a byproduct. $\endgroup$ – Aviose Sep 12 '17 at 22:01
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In Russian empire convicts were sent to Siberia for permanent settlement, as punishment and a way to identify them, those who commited grievous crimes (quite a wide definition at that time), would often have been cropped ( their ears cut off), and/or have their nostrils teared. Branding face (usually forehead) with hot iron was also common. Cutting off limbs was much less common, as made inmate unfit for forced labour. Provided authorities with difficult to hide way to identify prisoners.

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Use Tattoos

Checkout Brandon Sanderson's "The Way of Kings" epic novel (first of the The Stormlight Archive series). One of the main characters is branded as a slave using a tattoo on the forehead. Essentially the glyphs on the forehead provide a history of the slave. The branding system that he describes is very detailed providing many of the crimes that the user committed including a "violent" designation. In addition to providing the crimes, the tattoo also allows changes in status including "freedom" (and who granted it) so all can see that a former slave is a slave no longer. In a society which only rich women and priests are literate, this tattoo glyph system is an effective method in identifying slaves to the common people.

There are other instances of tattoos used in history including serial numbers to identify prisoners in Jewish Concentration Camps. Also, checkout the meanings behind modern prison tattoos.

Potential Problems

Medieval medicine did not have the ability to remove tattoos.

Escapees could attempt to cover them with other tattoo(s). In fact there could be an entire pirate culture that is made up of escaped prisoners and uses the tattoo system to demonstrate their own rank and achievements. Regardless, to a common person... anyone with a tattoo is dangerous.

Another issue is when the prisoner attempts to remove them via scrapping or burning. Again a large scar on the forehead should be a warning that the person is potentially dangerous. If the scar is accidental, then that person would need to purchase a writ from an official to declare their freedom.

Writ of Freedom

Someone else mentioned a permanent metal band around the throat. This would be a good way to demonstrate that a branded prisoner has served their time or were otherwise misidentified as a criminal. Make the band difficult to manufacture to reduce counterfits. It can even be studded with gems of various colors to represent the type of writ it is (proven innocent, served time, etc).

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    $\begingroup$ You'd want a gemless collar to be worth less than the embroidered one — but, anyways, what if you stole from another convict? Would the magistrates care? $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Sep 12 '17 at 6:03
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For (slightly) less bodily mutilation:

Piercings

Earrings would be an obvious choice but lips, belly etc. could all work, the location, material and/or number of the rings might even be used to indicate the severity of the crime. Depending on the location, construction and material used removing a piercing without the specific tools needed could get very messy and infectious and leave someone permanently disfigured in pretty noticeable way.

A bonus here is that ex-convicts would be quite easily identifiable as well, their piercings get "cleanly" removed but there would still be visible scarring where the piercings used to be.

The simple absence of a piercing/scarring where one would be should be enough to indicate someone is not a convict.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thing is, remove a piercing and hide for a while, the hole disappears. $\endgroup$ – Piomicron Sep 12 '17 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Piomicron depends on the hole (that sounds kinda wrong). Would also rely on prisoners having access to metal tools $\endgroup$ – Koen vd H Sep 13 '17 at 6:57
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I think branding probably fits your requirements best. I'm not sure why you'd want to mark individuals with a legitimate reason to be on your prison colony, it should suffice that they don't have the mark or a scar where the mark should be to prove they are not inmates.

You could also have it so that prisoners are very well documented during their conviction. Notes can describe identifying features and if you want to go so far, include a sketch in the inmate's file. It won't be a photo but an artist should be able to produce a good enough likeness.

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I'm thinking of the character Teal'c from Stargate SG-1.

"... the First Prime to a Goa'uld are given the gold embossed mark of their respective god. These tattoos are applied by cutting into the flesh with an Orak knife and pouring pure molten gold or silver into the wound." --- http://stargate.wikia.com/wiki/Jaffa_mark

Emphasis mine, because, yeowch.

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anon mentioned golden collars for the guards, and I think there's some mileage in the idea of marking those who aren't prisoners. Perhaps some kind of intricately fitted ear ornament – pinnae are nearly as distinctive as fingerprints, so a stolen ornament wouldn't work – and the specialist workshop to make these things would be on a different continent. Another possibility would be a pendant engraved with the bearer's likeness.

This avoids the essential problem of marking the prisoners, which is that the critical documentation (the prisoners' own bodies) is something they have unlimited access to tamper with. The drawback is that it doesn't identify escaped prisoners. But you could extend the logic to the whole civilisation, and say that every adult citizen has one of these tokens; for minor crimes, you could have yours confiscated for 3 months, making you a prisoner in your own town.

This is assuming pre-20th century technology, where hard-to-forge physical tokens were the pinnacle of security, and administrative records were unreliable. In the modern world, of course, the situation is reversed.

Obviously, no ID technique is foolproof (or even good), which is why so many stories from the past involve false identities and stolen royal signet rings and so on. But then, I assume the whole point of the OP is that someone is going to find a way to beat the system.

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How about Scleral Tattoos, a permanent tattoo on the whites of the eye.

This is actually an incredibly new thing, and was only invented in 2007 by Luna Cobra, so I don't know if it would even be do-able in a medieval setting (as it is done with syringes which weren't invented until 1853, and even then probably wouldn't have been fine enough to not damage the eyeball).

However, as you've said it is a fantasy setting, perhaps it could be hand-waved to say that a certain plant grows on the island of Yaehlbuhn that allows the whites of eyes to be permanently dyed using a technique available in a medieval setting (either ingesting, rubbing a paste of the plant into the eyes etc.) without permanently damaging their sight.

This way they would have to remove their own eyeballs if they wanted to escape, so unless they want to be blind they would be able to be identified easily, and no one else would have it done if it is something unique to that island.

It could even be played around with a bit: for example different crimes might use different coloured dyes.

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Amputation This can also be used to indicate seriousness of offence - there are 4 bits of data, 8 if you consider above/below limb joint.

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