Panopticon Prisons

Monday, 4th February 2008 by

Originally conceived by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785, the panopticon was intended to be a type of prison that allowed the guard to observe any of the inmates without them knowing if and when they were being watched. The design features a central platform surrounded by a ring of cells – thus enabling a clear view of every prisoner.

A panopticon was never built in Bentham’s lifetime, but the idea was revived many years later for the design of Statesville Correctional Centre in Crest Hill, Illinois. Opened in 1925 it has two ’roundhouses’, and is the only working example of a panopticon in the United States. Here’s a great photo which clearly illustrates what the interior is like.


Although genuine panopticons are very rare, outside of the US there are a few more for us to see.

The Presidio Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba was directly inspired by Statesville, completed in 1931, and remains one of the best examples of Bentham’s concept. Originally holding up to 6000 prisoners, its most famous inmate was probably the current President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who was held here between 1953 and 1955. The last prisoner was released in 1967 however, and it is now a national museum – this photo shows how it looks inside today.


Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is an outdoor version of the panopticon, but still has the central observation tower and cells ringed round it. During the Vietnam War, the prison was used to hold Viet Cong members, and still serves as the main correctional facility for the city.


Finally, Holland actually has three panopticons – in Haarlem, Breda and Arnhem. Designed by Willem C. Metzelaar, Haarlem’s domed prison has four floors of cells, and was completed in 1901.


Merzelaar’s father was the architect for Breda and Arnhem, which perhaps explains the similar style of the three buildings. The Dutch government refurbished these prisons in 1979, choosing to remove the central observation platforms, but keeping the rings of cells intact.



Wikipedia has more on panopticons, Jeremy Bentham and the Separate System.