The Panopticon Prison Design

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.”

The idea of the Panopticon was to enforce behavior or sense of control. 'The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is a guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of the distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. (Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.)

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.


Sir Samuel Bentham (11 January 1757 - 31 May 1831) was a noted mechanical engineer credited with numerous innovations, particularly related to naval architecture, including weapons. He was also the brother of philosopher Jeremy Bentham.  At the age of 14, Bentham was apprenticed to a shipwright at Woolwich Dockyard, serving there for seven years. In 1780 he moved to Russia, where he was employed in the service of Prince Potemkin, who had an establishment designed to promote the introduction of various arts of civilization. Though he was initially hired as a shipbuilder, Bentham soon became responsible for multiple tasks, and eventually came to have complete responsibility over the administration of Potemkin's estate. He was in charge of a battalion of a thousand men, and the complexities involved in dealing with such a workforce led Bentham to conceive the idea of central inspection, out of which emerged the panopticon project popularized by his brother Jeremy.

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 favorable 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 the 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, Eastern State Penitentiary, 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 individualizing,” 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.




Bentham’s Panopticon Prison Design