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Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.

The design consists of a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, poorhouses, daycares, and madhouses, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison, and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.

Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."[1]


Conceptual history

In 1786-7, Bentham traveled to Krichev in White Russia to visit his brother, Samuel, who was engaged in managing various industrial and other projects for Prince Potemkin. It was Samuel (as Jeremy later repeatedly acknowledged) who conceived the basic idea of a circular building at the hub of a larger compound as a means of allowing a small number of managers to oversee the activities of a large and unskilled workforce.[2] Jeremy began to develop this model, particularly as applicable to prisons, and outlined his ideas in a series of letters sent home to his father in England. He supplemented the supervisory principle with the idea of contract management; that is, an administration by contract as opposed to trust, where the director would have a pecuniary interest in lowering the average rate of mortality.

The Panopticon was intended to be cheaper than the prisons of his time, as it required fewer staff; "Allow me to construct a prison on this model," Bentham requested to a Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law, "I will be the gaoler. You will see ... that the gaoler will have no salary will cost nothing to the nation." As the watchmen cannot be seen, they need not be on duty at all times, effectively leaving the watching to the watched. According to Bentham's design, the prisoners would also be used as menial labour walking on wheels to spin looms or run a water wheel. This would decrease the cost of the prison and give a possible source of income.[3]

The abortive Panopticon prison project

On his return to England from Russia, Bentham continued to work on the idea of a Panopticon prison, and commissioned drawings from an architect, Willey Reveley. In 1791, he published the material he had written as a book, although he continued to refine his proposals for many years to come. He had by now decided that he wanted to see the prison built: when finished, it would be managed by himself as contractor-governor, with the assistance of Samuel. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the authorities in Ireland and revolutionary France, he started trying to persuade the prime minister, William Pitt, to revive an earlier abandoned scheme for a National Penitentiary in England, this time to be built as a Panopticon. He was eventually successful in winning over Pitt and his advisors, and in 1793, was paid 2000 for preliminary work on the project.

The intended site was that authorized (under an act of 1779) for the earlier Penitentiary, at Battersea Rise; but the new proposals ran into technical legal problems and objections from the local landowner, Earl Spencer. Other sites were considered, including one at Hanging Wood, near Woolwich, but all proved unsatisfactory. Eventually Bentham turned to a site at Tothill Fields, near Westminster. Although this was common land, with no landowner, there were a number of parties with interests in it, including Earl Grosvenor, who owned a house on an adjacent site and objected to the idea of a prison overlooking it. Again, therefore, the scheme ground to a halt. At this point, however, it became clear that a nearby site at Millbank, adjoining the Thames, was available for sale, and this time things ran more smoothly. Using government money, Bentham bought the land on behalf of the Crown for 12,000 in November 1799.

From his point of view, the site was far from ideal, being marshy, unhealthy, and too small. When he asked the government for more land and more money, however, the response was that he should build only a small-scale experimental prison - which he interpreted as meaning that there was little real commitment to the concept of the Panopticon as a cornerstone of penal reform. Negotiations continued, but in 1801 Pitt resigned from office, and in 1803 the new Addington administration decided not to proceed with the project. Bentham was devastated, saying "they have murdered my best days".[4]

Nevertheless, a few years later the government revived the idea of a National Penitentiary, and in 1811-12 returned specifically to the idea of a Panopticon. Bentham, now aged 63, was still willing to be governor. However, as it became clear that there was still no real commitment to the proposal, he abandoned hope, and instead turned his attentions to extracting financial compensation for his years of fruitless effort. His initial claim was for the enormous sum of nearly 700,000, but he eventually settled for the more modest (but still considerable) sum of 23,000. An Act of Parliament in 1812 transferred his title in the site to the Crown.

Bentham remained bitter about the rejection of the Panopticon scheme throughout his later life, convinced that it had been thwarted by the King and an aristocratic elite. It was largely because of his sense of injustice that he developed his ideas of 'sinister interest' - that is, of the vested interests of the powerful conspiring against a wider public interest - which underpinned many of his broader arguments for reform.

The National Penitentiary was indeed subsequently built on the Millbank site, but to a design by William Williams that owed little to the Panopticon, beyond the fact that the governor's quarters, administrative offices and chapel were placed at the centre of the complex. It opened in 1816.

Panopticon prison designs

Prison Presidio Modelo, December 2005
Prison Presidio Modelo, December 2005
Prison Presidio Modelo, Inside one of the buildings, December 2005
Prison Presidio Modelo, Inside one of the buildings, December 2005

No true Panopticon prisons to Bentham's designs have ever been built. The closest are the buildings of the now abandoned Presidio Modelo in Cuba. Although most prison designs have included elements of surveillance, the essential feature of Bentham's design was that the custodians should be able to view the prisoners at all times (including when they were in their cells), but that the prisoners should be unable to see the custodians, and so would never know when they were under surveillance. This objective was extremely difficult to achieve within the constraints of the available technology, which is why Bentham spent so many years reworking his plans. Subsequent nineteenth-century prison designs enabled the custodians to keep the doors of cells and the outsides of buildings under observation, but not to see the prisoners in their cells. Something close to a realization of Bentham's vision only became possible through twentieth-century technological developments - notably CCTV - but these eliminated the need for a specific architectural framework.

The Panopticon is widely, but erroneously, believed to have influenced the design of Pentonville Prison in North London, Armagh Gaol in Northern Ireland, and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. These, however, were Victorian examples of the Separate system, which was more about prisoner isolation than prisoner surveillance; in fact, the separate system makes surveillance quite difficult.

Many modern prisons are built in a "podular" design influenced by the Panopticon design, in intent and basic organization if not in exact form. As compared to traditional "cellblock" designs, in which rectangular buildings contain tiers of cells one atop the other in front of a walkway along which correctional officers patrol, modern prisons are often decentralized and contain triangular or trapezoidal-shaped housing units known as "pods" or "modules" designed to hold between 16 and 50 prisoners each. Cells are laid out in three or fewer tiers arrayed around either a central control station or a desk which affords a single correctional officer full view of all cells within either a 270 or 180 field of view (180 is considered a closer level of supervision).

Control of cell doors, CCTV monitors and communications are all conducted from the control station. The correctional officer, depending on the level of security and segregation, may be armed with nonlethal and lethal weapons. Increasingly, meals, laundry, commissary items and other goods and services are dispatched directly to the pods or individual cells. These design points, whatever their deliberate or incidental psychological and social effects, serve to maximize the number of prisoners that can be controlled and monitored by one individual, reducing staffing; as well as restricting prisoner movement throughout the prison as tightly as possible.

Prisons for which a "Panoptic" influence has been claimed

As noted above, none of these prisons - with the arguable exception of the Presidio Modelo - are true Panopticons in the Benthamic sense. In some cases, the claims for any influence are very dubious indeed, and seem to be based on little more than the fact that (for example) the design is circular.

Other panoptic structures

Bentham always conceived the Panopticon principle as being beneficial to the design of a variety of institutions where surveillance was important, including hospitals, schools, workhouses, and lunatic asylums, as well as prisons. In particular, he developed it in his ideas for a "chrestomathic" school (one devoted to useful learning), in which teaching was to be undertaken by senior pupils on the monitorial principle, under the overall supervision of the Master;[6] and for a pauper "industry-house" (workhouse).[7][8]

A wooden Panopticon factory, capable of holding 5000 workers, was constructed by Samuel Bentham in Saint Petersburg, on the banks of the Neva River, between 1805 and 1808: its purpose was to educate and employ young men in trades connected with the navy. It burned down in 1818.[9]

The Round Mill in Belper, Derbyshire, England, is supposed to have been built on the Panopticon principle. Constructed in 1811, it fell into disuse by the beginning of the 20th century and was demolished in 1959.[10]

The Worcester State Hospital, constructed in the late 19th century, extensively employed panoptic structures to allow more efficient observation of the wards. It was considered a model facility at the time.

The Panopticon has been suggested as an "open" hospital architecture: "Hospitals required knowledge of contacts, contagions, proximity and crowding ... at the same time to divide space and keep it open, assuring a surveillance which is both global and individualising", 1977 interview (preface to French edition of Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon").

The panopticon as metaphor

Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham's time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories have evolved through history to resemble Bentham's Panopticon. The notoriety of the design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault's famous analysis of it.

Building on Foucault, contemporary social critics often assert that technology has allowed for the deployment of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society. Surveillance by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Furthermore, a number of cities in the United Kingdom, including Middlesbrough, Bristol, Brighton and London have recently added loudspeakers to a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor to issue audible messages to the public.[11][12] Similarly, critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panopticon form of observation.[13] ISPs are able to track users' activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.[14]

Shoshana Zuboff used the metaphor of the panopticon in her 1988 book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power to describe how computer technology makes work more visible. In 1991 Mohammad Kowsar used the metaphor in the title of his book "The Critical Panopticon: Essays in the Theatre and Contemporary Aesthetics" (American University Studies Series Xxvi Theatre Arts). Derrick Jensen and Gerge Draffan's 2004 book Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control demonstrates how our society, by techniques like the use of biometric passports to identity chips in consumer goods, from nanoparticle weapons to body-enhancing and mind-altering drugs for soldiers, is being pushed towards a panopticon-like state.

Examples in contemporary society

England and Wales

The use of photographic surveillance began in 1913 with the surreptitious taking of pictures from disguised locations of the suffragette inmates of Holloway Prison. The first use on record of camera surveillance in public space was that of the Metropolitan Police at Trafalgar Square in 1960. They used two temporary cameras to monitor crowds during the arrival of the Thai royal family and on Guy Fawkes Day. Between 1960 and 1996, the proliferation of the closed circuit system resulted in government spending on it accounting for more than three-quarters of the total crime prevention budget and a mass demonstration against camera surveillance in Brighton in May 1997. Over the next few years, face and license plate recognition was installed in key positions in London.[15] With the recent 7/7 bombings, where the bombers were caught on CCTV on their way into London, the effectiveness of the CCTV system has come under scrutiny, with emerging reports showing little or no deterrence of overall crime in London.[16]

United States

New York City has stated ambitions to create its very own "ring of steel", very much similar to that surrounding the City of London. It would surround of Lower Manhattan and cost $90 million. As of August 2007, the city had raised about $25 million.[17] As in the case of the already-installed camera security system in London, its ostensible effectiveness is continually under question.

Literature and the arts

  • In Gabriel Garc a M rquez's novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the Vicario brothers spend three years in the "panopticon of Riohacha" awaiting trial for the murder of Santiago Nasar.
  • Angela Carter also includes a critique of the Panopticon prison system during the Siberian segment of Nights at the Circus.
  • In her 2008 young adult novel The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart has the protagonist talk about reading an excerpt from Michel Foucault's book Discipline and Punish in which he "uses the idea of the panopticon as a metaphor for Western society and its emphasis on normalization and observation" (Lockhart 2008, p. 54). He goes on to bring up the panopticon again throughout the course of the book.
  • Charles Stross's novel Glasshouse features a technology-enabled panopticon as the novel's primary location.
  • The 2009 film "Law Abiding Citizen" uses the panopticon, both architecturally and conceptually, in a Foucauldian interpretation of the power struggle inherent in a system of constant observation.
  • In JLA: Earth 2 and related works, the lunar headquarters of the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, analogous to the Watchtower of the Justice League of America, is called the Panopticon. The contrast of names implies that from the Panopticon, observation serves purposes of control and coercion, while surveillance is conducted from the Watchtower in order to aid and protect.
  • Sludge metal band ISIS named their third album Panopticon; the album's focus is on the proliferation of surveillance technologies throughout modern society and the government's role in that spread.
  • In John XII Hawks' novels, The Fourth Realm Trilogy, the antagonists seek to create a "virtual panopticon" imprisoning and controlling the population by means of surveillance technology.
  • In Deus Ex, the protagonist J.C. Denton has a conversation with a prototype surveillance AI named Morpheus, who insists that humans require the feeling of being watched and judged in order to behave cohesively toward a mutual goal. Later, a more advanced iteration of the same program, named Helios, wants access to a global communications network housed under Area 51. The password to the server is "Panopticon".
  • In the 2004 video game Silent Hill 4: The Room, one part of the game takes place in a Panopticon inspired cylindrical prison.
  • On September 22, 2011 CBS Television aired "Person Of Interest", a panopticon plot with an all seeing "machine" monitoring society in search of terrorist plots against the United States.
  • In the British science fiction series "Doctor Who," an assembly hall in the citadel of the Time Lords - who observe the whole universe without anyone in the universe knowing - is called the "Panopticon."
  • Although not directly named, the telescreens which are omnipresent in Orwell's 1984 of which "there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment... you had to live... in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised"[18] are based on the founding principle of the Panopticon.
  • The 1992 science fiction film 'Fortress' (starring Christopher Lambert) is set in a panopticon style prison.

See also



Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995

Janet Semple, Bentham's Prison: a Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993

External links

ar: ca:Pan ptic da:Panoptisk f ngsel de:Panopticon el:Panopticon es:Pan ptico eu:Panoptiko fa: fr:Panoptique ko: it:Panopticon he: nl:Panopticum ja: pl:Panoptikon pt:Pan- ptico ru: fi:Panoptikon sv:Panoptikon (f ngelse) tr:Panoptikon uk: zh:

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