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Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791
Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791
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 are not cut, but untied - all by a simple idea in Architecture!-
Jeremy Bentham[1]

The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience".

The architectural figure "incorporates a tower central to an annular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells . . . are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also mazelike connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer." [2]

Bentham derived the idea from the plan of a factory designed for easy supervision, itself conceived by his brother Samuel who arrived to 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 that of the prisons of his time, as it required less 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.

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 and 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, however, did little to alleviate Bentham's ensuing 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 normalize. 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.

The Panopticon influenced the design of Pentonville Prison, Armagh Gaol [1] (, Eastern State Penitentiary [2] (, and several other Victorian prisons.

The Panopticon was likewise later 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").

Critics argue this technology and philosophy could be expanded to society as a whole. Many areas have seen an incremental creep of closed-circuit television surveillance such as at stoplights and in city downtowns like London where video cameras are used to reduce the risk of crime. In totalitarian societies, panopticon systems could lead to oppressive Orwellian conditions. It is also the architectural analogy to the underpinnings of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism philosophy.

The Panopticon is also the name given to the citadel of an extraterrestrial race known as the Time Lords, in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Panopticon prisons

See also


  1. Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon ( In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95.
  2. Barton, Ben F., and Marthalee S. Barton. "Modes of Power in Technical and Professional Visuals." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 7.1, 1993, 138-62.
  3. Surveillance and Society, Special Issue on the Panopticon ( (Philosophie)

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