The Panopticon: The Controversy Over an 18th Century Prison Concept That’s Still in Use Today

If you’re into gardening you know about soil pH. If you’re into astronomy you know about apparent magnitude. If you’re a correctional officer you’re bound to hear about the Panopticon.

If you’ve worked at different correctional facilities you will have noticed that each place does things a bit differently. Some places allow correctional officers to carry weapons. At other places you’ll be armed with non-lethal tools or nothing at all. Some places have sentry towers with armed guards internally, externally, or both. Other places only have high walls and razor wire. The differences between correctional facilities ultimately boil down to differences in the philosophical approach to incarceration. And the Panopticon represents an extreme philosophical approach that is still applied in some prisons to this day.

It sounds like something out of a horror movie or Greek mythology, and in some ways it is. According to legend, Argus Panoptes was a giant with 100 eyes; so many that he could always have a few open to keep watch, even when he slept. That legend hints at the function of a Panopticon, whose Greek roots mean (pan-) all (-opticon) seeing.

Panopticon is a design that takes maximum advantage of the psychological theory that people behave better when they think they are being watched. Examples include London’s CCTV camera system, half-orbs with one-way mirrors protruding from the ceiling at the mall that may contain remote-controlled security cameras, and one-way security mirrors.

Applied to an entire prison design, Panopticons are extremely distinct. They feature a massive multi-story circular structure comprised of cells. Looking down from an airplane it would look like a giant doughnut, except there is a roof on top. The structure forms an enormous circular open courtyard, in the center of which is an elevated guard tower with one-way windows. The guards can look out but the inmates can’t see in.

The inside of the circular courtyard is dimly lit. Every cell – the cell entrance – faces the watchtower in the center. The interior of the circular structure is strafed with walkways going horizontally between cells, and vertically connecting the multi-story structure.  Every cell has a window at the opposite end that faces outside. Natural light comes in from the exterior of the doughnut-shaped structure to provide a backlight so correctional officers in the watchtower have an illuminated view into every cell from their central position. Modern Panopticons are designed so correctional officers enter their central guard post from a covered walkway; inmates never know how many are stationed in the central watchtower at any given time.

The Debate Over the Panopticon Design

This design is likely to raise an eyebrow on any correctional officer, who would immediately see the potential for guards to be vulnerable to attack since the design places them in one central location surrounded by inmates. Imagine how it would feel to be at the center of the roundhouse looking out, or in a cell wondering who was watching you.

Until 2016 the most controversial Panopticon in the United States was Stateville Correctional Center’s F-House, located an hour’s drive from Chicago. Housing 348 maximum security male inmates, some compared the interior of the F-House to a larger version of the Thunderdome from the 80’s Mad Max sequel.

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The John Howard Association, an Illinois organization dedicated to criminal justice reform, had much harsher words for the Panopticon design, and the F-House in particular:

“Living and working conditions in this ill-conceived structure are unsanitary, inhumane and degrading for prisoners and staff alike. Built in 1922, the roundhouse is a Panopticon design construct, a model that was universally deemed harsh, chaotic and ineffective and abandoned by correctional agencies throughout the world long ago. The archaic Panopticon design creates a physical environment that is damaging to the physical and mental health of prisoners and operationally dangerous for correctional staff. The grim conditions inside the roundhouse include persistent, insufferable noise-levels; extreme temperatures and poor ventilation…”

The State of Illinois partially agreed with the John Howard Association, admitting the outdated layout created operational and safety hazards for correctional officers and inmates.

The Roundhouse Was the Brainchild of a Man Considered Radical in His Time

But not all agree the design is flawed, inhumane, and degrading.

The idea of a Panopticon originated with the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Born in 1748, today he would be considered progressive. Back then he was considered radical; an advocate for women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, and the abolition of slavery, the death penalty, and corporal punishment for children.

Bentham refined his Panopticon design for over more than a dozen years and stated in a correspondence that he conceived it as, “a mill for grinding rogues honest, and idle men industrious.” He based this on the idea that a sense of being under constant surveillance would have an overwhelming impact on convicts, encouraging them to change their lives for the better. He also thought his design would reduce prison costs because less correctional officers would be needed to keep watch on the inmates.

Regardless of which selling point carried more weight, Bentham’s design philosophy was adopted by many of his time. Today, however, modern technology like CCTV systems have largely eliminated the need to incorporate line-of-sight surveillance into the design of an entire prison structure.

Closed in 2016, the Illinois Department of Corrections’ F-House at the Stateville Correctional Center was the last roundhouse Panopticon prison operating in the United States. However this concept still exists in other prisons such as the Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles, and in some schools. The design has also been used worldwide, notably in the Netherlands, France, and Cuba.

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While Bentham’s structural design for a Panopticon will probably fade into history, his philosophy about an all-seeing authority has seen a recent comeback in the present debate about the surveillance state ignited by the Edward Snowden disclosures, with some referring to it as the new Panopticon.