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Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791
The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience."

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

Conceptual history

"Morals reformed— health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!"

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a military school in Parismarker designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived at it as a solution to the complexities involved in the handling of large numbers of men. Bentham supplemented this 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.

Bentham devoted a large part of his time and almost his whole fortune to promote the construction of a prison based on his scheme. After many years and innumerable political and financial difficulties, he eventually obtained a favourable sanction from Parliament for the purchase of a place to erect the prison, but in 1811 after the King refused to authorize the purchase of the land, the project was finally aborted. In 1813 he was awarded a sum of £23,000 in compensation for his monetary loss which did little to alleviate Bentham's unhappiness for the miscarriage.

While the design did not come to fruition during Bentham's time, it has been seen as an important development. For instance, the design was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and its pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault proposes that not only prisons but all hierarchical structures like the army, the school, the hospital and the factory 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.

Panoptic prison design

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

The Panopticon is widely, but erroneously, believed to have influenced the design of Pentonville Prisonmarker in North London, Armagh Gaol in Northern Ireland, and Eastern State Penitentiarymarker in Philadelphiamarker. 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. No true panopticons were built in Britain during Bentham's lifetime, and very few anywhere in the British Empire.

Many modern prisons built today 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 sixteen and fifty prisoners each. In these designs, 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 to cover the pod as well. 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.

Panopticon-inspired prisons

Other panoptic structures

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

The only industrial building ever to be built on the Panopticon principle was the Round Mill in Belper, Derbyshire, England. Constructed in 1811 it fell into disuse by the beginning of the twentieth century and was demolished in 1959.

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. Further more, a number of cities in England (UK), including Middlesbrough, Bristol, Brighton and London have recently added loudspeakers to the a number of their existing CCTV cameras. They can transmit the voice of a camera supervisor in order to issue audible messages to the public. Similarly, critical analyses of internet practice have suggested that the internet allows for a panopticon form of observation.
ISP are able to track users' activities, while user-generated content means that daily social activity may be recorded and broadcast online.

In popular culture

  • In Franz Kafka's "The Castle", the main character, K, finds himself in a village which is overseen by an unreachable Castle, bearing Jeremy Bentham's design.
  • Closed-circuit television is similar to the methods used in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four by the thought police to control the citizenry. At any moment, a person may or may not be being observed via a telescreen, though whether one is being watched at any given moment is unknown to that person.
  • In Gabriel Garcia Marquez'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.
  • John Twelve Hawks writes about panopticon as a model for society in his book The Traveler
  • 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). She goes on to bring up the panopticon again throughout the course of the book.
  • In the Terry Pratchett novel Making Money, a banker has a similar device so that he can supervise the work of all the clerks at the bank.
  • Charles Stross's novel Glasshouse features a technology-enabled panopticon as the novel's primary location. "Glasshouse" is British Army slang for a military prison..
  • The popular film Gilda (1946) features a panopticon-style headquarters in the casino of Nazist crime lord Ballin Mundson (George Macready). This menacing office and control base allows Mundson to oversee his gambling empire, and also provides Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) with a means to keep a check on the activities of the film's eponymous femme fatale (Rita Hayworth).
  • The 1993 science fiction film Fortress features a heavily panoptic multi-level structure, albeit wholly underground. Most of the control over the structure and the inmates is given to the prison's central computer in similar vein to above literature, with ultimate leverage still exercised by the half-cyborg prison director.
  • In prison drama series Oz Emerald City unit features a central control station with visibility to all pods.
  • The 2004 sci-fi adventure The Chronicles of Riddick employs a similar underground structure, which is set deep within the recesses of a planetoid enduring extreme ground temperatures day and night.
  • In the British TV science fiction series Doctor Who, the main room of the Capitol on Gallifrey (the Time Lords' home planet) was called the Panopticon, although it apparently did not have a panoptic design. (It may have been called that because events there were televised to the whole planet.)
  • In the television show Lost much of how the Others watched Jack Shepherd, James "Sawyer" Ford, and Kate Austen was very similar to the Panopticon. A character even takes the name of Jeremy Bentham in Season 4.
  • Post-metal band Isis's 2004 album Panopticon takes both its title and its central lyrical theme from the Panopticon design.
  • Joanna Newsom references the panopticon in the song Yarn and Glue.
  • The 1998 video game Sanitarium features a mental asylum designed as Panopticon.
  • In the 2000 video game Deus Ex 'panopticon' is the password for a computer terminal that allows access to the fictional omniscient, media controlling AI Helios.
  • The Asylum level of the 2003 game XIII contains a cell block that is organized in this manner.
  • The 2004 game Silent Hill 4 featured the Water Prison, a panopticon in 'prison world' which the main character visits. The water prison was used to punish and brainwash the children of the Holy Mother sect from the town of Silent Hill.
  • "After The Rush Hour" by Million Dead, from their 2nd album Harmony No Harmony, mentions to "Mazzini's Paradisiacal Panopticon" referring to Italian Politician Giuseppe Mazzini
  • The 2009 film "Law Abiding Citizen" uses the panopticon, both architecturally and conceptually, in a Foucaultian interpretation of the power struggle inherent in a system of constant observation.

See also


  1. Lang, Silke Berit. "The Impact of Video Systems on Architecture", dissertion, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, 2004.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.
  3. Jeremy Bentham. Panopticon. In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.
  4. In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.
  5. Farmer, Adrian, Belper and Milford, Tempus Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2004, 119.
  6. Cameras Help Stop Crime The Hoya, September 22 2006
  7. 2006, But Has 1984 Finally Arrived? Indymedia UK, 19 September 2006
  8. WORKSHOP:Exploring the Impact of User-generated Mobile Content – The Participatory Panopticon
  9. Glasshouse (British Army) Wikipedia

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