Panopticon: The philosopher’s circle as solution to the question of prison design

The Panopticon, 1787

Jeremy Bentham and Willey Reveley, London, UK

“‘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-Laws not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!’  

That was the prediction of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, when writing about the Panopticon, a type of architectural design that would allow one person to observe a large number of people – without them knowing when they were being watched.

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and a proponent of utilitarianism and animal rights.

Prison conditions were a burning issue in late eighteenth-century Britain. Crowded, and unpleasant, prisons were insanitary places more likely to result in the spread of disease than in rehabilitation of the offender. Despite numerous change efforts by campaigners such as British reformer John Howard, all attempts ran up against the problem of money. Prisons were costly to built and to manage. Bentham’s idea was to design a circular prison in such a way that a single warder could keep an eye on a whole floor of prisoners.

Treadwheel, Third Vagrants’ Yard, c. 1862

The panopticon penitentiary, from the Greek παν- (‘all’) and -οπτικος (‘seeing’) was based upon an idea of Jeremy’s younger brother, Samuel, who while working in Russia for Prince Potemkin, hit upon the ‘central inspection principle’ which would facilitate the training and supervision of unskilled workers by experienced craftsmen.

Jeremy came to adapt this principle for his proposed prison, an ‘Inspection House’ envisaged as a circular building, with the prisoners’ cells arranged around the outer wall and the central point dominated by an inspection tower. From this building, the prison’s inspector could look into the cells at any time—and even be able to speak to the prisoners in their cells via an elaborate network of ‘conversation tubes’—though the inmates themselves would never be able to see the inspector himself. The idea of constant, overbearing surveillance is certainly unsettling, but the panopticon and its central inspection principle would, Bentham argued, have multifarious benefits.

Penitentiary Panopticon Elevation/Section/Plan

One such benefit that Bentham saw in his design was that prisoners could be put to useful or profitable tasks. Prisoners at this time did not normally work – this was yet another activity that required close supervision and consequently cost money. With the panopticon system, it was argued, the surveillance was cheaper and work viable. Overall, Bentham presented this design as an economic advantage – his vision for the prison system involved government-backed private enterprise, paid for in part by prisoners’ labour.

The architectural project was commissioned Willey Reveley, a young artist and architect. As a Classicist and follower of the great Georgian architect Sir William Chambers, he had been to Greece and drawn the monuments there. He’s plans for the Panopticon showed a plain, six-storey building with no ornament but afford a certain grandeur by a series of semi-circular relieving arches. Inside, the main floors each has some two dozen cells around the central lodge.

Panopticon plans (drawn by Willey Reveley), c. 1794-1795 (Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections, UC cxix, f. 125r)

Bentham looked up a number of possible places in London most of them proving problematic – mainly because people with property nearby did not want a prison in their ‘backyard’. However, in 1799, a vacant site north of the Thames at Milbank was found, and Bentham bought it on behalf of the government for £12,000. Then the scheme fell through. The government changed in 1803 and with that came an administration less keen to pursue a project were adequate money for the building was not forthcoming. Ultimately, Bentham was paid £23,000 in compensation and the plan was dropped. A prison was subsequently built on the site at Millbank, but it was not based on Bentham’s principles or design. After the Millbank Penitentiary closed in 1890, the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) was built on site.

Plan of Millbank Prison, Constructed 1812, on land originally purchased by Bentham for the construction of his Panopticon.

Other prison designers adopted some of Bentham’s principles, as did a few of the architects of Victorian workhouses in the nineteenth century.  So, although Bentham’s own Panopticon came to nothing, its influence lived on.

Works Cited: Phantom Architecture by Philip Wilkinson, Simon & Schuster, 2017, p. 70-73 | Madness & Civilization by Michel Foucault, Vintage Books, 1965