The panopticons of Cuba

In a few places, Bentham's vision was realised. Then it became commonplace.

In 1786, Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher and social theorist who made great inroads in the fields of ethics, jurisprudence and political philosophy, as well as being the "spiritual", if not actual, founder of UCL) visited his brother Samuel in Russia, who was working for Prince Grigory Potemkin helping administer the new provinces the country had won in the Russo-Turkish War. There, Samuel suggested to him the idea of a circular building at the core of a larger compound, by which a few guards could oversee a much bigger group of workers.

Jeremy took the idea and ran with it, eventually publishing his plans five years later under the title Panopticon; or, The Inspection-House. He laid out his idea for a great building, focusing specifically on the application of his ideas to a prison, but emphasising the flexibility with which they could apply to hospitals, schools or "mad-houses". As his brother suggested, it would be circular building, with a glass lantern in the middle where the guards would keep watch, "roughly the size of Ranaleigh [sic]", meaning the rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea:

The Ranelagh Rotunda, as painted by Canaletto. The picture now hangs in the National Gallery

But Jeremy improved his brother's idea in one crucial way. As well as allowing just a few guards to administer an entire prison, his plan involved concealing the inspectors from the view of the prisoners, "by blinds and other contrivances". The idea then is that the prisoners are forced to act as though they're being watched, even if there's no one in the watchtower at all.

In practice, this element of the idea was too cumbersome to pull off. It was one thing, with 18th and 19th century technology, to obscure where someone was looking; but it was quite another to obscure whether they were even present at all, in a building which must, to be effective, allow occupants to look out from 360 degrees.

Philosophy students, on learning about Bentham and the panopticon, tend to assume it was a thought experiment, designed to elaborate some aspect of the human psyche. It wasn't; he actually spent the better over a decade trying to get it built, before billing the government £700,000 (just under £50m in 2012 pounds) for his time. They paid him £23,000.

But the fact that Bentham's panopticon was never built doesn't mean it never existed. In fact, prisons around the world incorporated his ideas, although few of them attempted to implement the hidden-observance aspect of it, even after inventions like two-way mirrors would have made it practical to do so. The two best-known (and photographed) ones are in the Americas.

Image from a period postcard.

The Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois (above) has the circular building, central guard tower and stacked cells, and the Encyclopaedia of Chicago confirms the Benthamite influence. The prison itself is still open, and the roundhouse block is now used to segregate inmates from the general population, as well as holding prisoners awaiting trial or transfer.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

The Presidio Modelo, a Cuban "model prison" built on an island off the country's south coast in the 1920s, was also built to a panopticon design. Tourists can now visit the prisons, which have four panopticon blocks, and a fifth where speaking was banned.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

It's not hard to see why the panopticon idea has fallen out of fashion. For one thing, it was a surprisingly inefficient way of holding prisoners; the large central area required means that the jails based on the idea take up a lot of room compared to more traditional designs. And the real problems with prison discipline have never been prisoners in their cells, but in communal areas – which a panopticon design can't really help with.

But the biggest reason is obsolescence. Where technology initially prevented actual prisons from employing the continuous observance aspect, it's now standard thanks to CCTV. And not just in jails, either. For most of us in our daily lives, we're never quite sure whether anyone else is watching. Even if we aren't moving, our electronic communications could be being observed. Bentham's vision arrived, two hundred years late. And he's still owed £677,000 for his time.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue