A visit to the Panopticon
In 1791 the philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a building where the occupants could be watched over by a single invisible observer. A century later the world’s largest panopticon was built—in Cuba.By John Ryle • January 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Letters to the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books • Posted 2016 • 1,673 words
On New Year’s Day we took the Comet to the Isle of Youth. While we were still far off – in a stretch of mangroves between the mainland and the island – a cluster of large, squat cylindrical buildings came into view in the distance. This was the fabled Panopticon, once Cuba’s largest prison, its curved yellow walls and corrugated roof panels glowing in the sun.
As we drew nearer to the island a narrow channel opened through the mangroves. Now the Kometa – an ageing Russian-built hydrofoil – slowed up and sank down on its fins, bow wave slapping at the dense tangle of roots on either side. Horse-drawn carts were waiting at the quay where we landed. Emily, my niece and interpreter, negotiated with them for a ride. The journey through the town, Nueva Gerona, took next to no time. The road passed over a bridge and through a banana grove, then skirted a steep hill covered in pine trees. From here a gravel driveway led to the five huge rotundas we had seen from far off. Now the challenge was to get inside one of them.
Jeremy Bentham’s enlightenment project
Some background. The Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth, also known by its earlier name, the Island of Pines), the site of this architectural and historical curiosity, lies fifty miles from the southern coast of Cuba. A former haunt of pirates, the inspiration of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Isle of Youth became part of a Cuban gulag in the early years of the century. The group of buildings we found ourselves looking at was built as a jail, a model prison – El Presidio Modelo.
Thousands of criminals and political prisoners were incarcerated here, hundreds were tortured and killed. Fidel Castro himself was imprisoned on the Isle of Youth for two years. It was during this time that he wrote the speech, now part of the mythology of the Cuban Revolution, that ends with the defiant phrase: La historia me absolverá (History will absolve me). Later, under his rule, the model prison served as a place of indefinite confinement for his political opponents.
For architectural historians the prison has a further significance, beyond its role as a shrine of political resistance. It has a special place in the history of surveillance, in the steadily advancing systems of observation and control that modern societies wield over their citizens. The building is one of only a few in the world – there are others in the US and the Netherlands – that follow the plan devised by Jeremy Bentham in 1791 for a Panopticon, an edifice designed for the total surveillance of its denizens, be they prisoners, or patients, or factory workers. In Bentham’s day the idea was not a success: at the Millbank Penitentiary, a drastically modified version of his design that once stood on the site of the present-day Tate Gallery, the prisoners rioted. It was only in the twentieth century that close approximations to the original Panopticon design were built.
The buildings we found ourselves looking at on the Isle of Youth are a monument in the history of the Enlightenment. Long before the invention of finger-printing, ID cards, clock-punching, or closed-circuit television, Bentham’s vision was of a place where everything would be known, where no one could move without being seen. His original design shows a circular central hub, joined by walkways to up to eight subsidiary rotundas. These rotundas, six stories high, are like gigantic dovecotes—for creatures that cannot fly. Their inside walls are layered with shallow rooms, or cells, a hundred on each level. Inside each rotunda, rising from ground level in the dead centre of the building, is an isolated tower, like a miniature lighthouse, or the stamen of a lily. In Bentham’s original design there are no doors, nor windows. From the top of this tower the guards—or orderlies or overseers—are able to survey every prisoner, or patient or worker, while themselves remaining unobserved.
For Bentham the idea of the panopticon was rational and benign. But the French philosopher Michel Foucault, two centuries later, saw it as a sinister Enlightenment project, herald of an age of scientific observation and control, a new constraint on human freedom. (The American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb had made the same point a decade previously.) In Foucault’s history of incarceration, Discipline and Punish, the design of the panopticon is a central motif. He calls it a “laboratory of power”.
The prison on the Isle of Youth in Cuba is the closest thing to Bentham’s design that actually exists: the central hub and four out of the eight rotundas were completed according to the original Benthamite plan, on an even grander scale. These strange buildings were constructed between 1921 and 1932 at the behest of Cuba’s first modern-day dictator, Gerardo Machado. The prison was finally closed down in 1967.
Breaking and entering
As we approached the rotundas they grew till they filled the sky. They looked like gasometers, or flattened grain silos. There was a small museum nearby, but the huge towers, shorn of their window bars, lay abandoned, open to the sun and the wind. As we wandered among them on New Year’s Day, goats browsed and birds swooped through holes in the roofs. Peering up through the windows we could see tiers of numbered cells linked by narrow stairways. As in Bentham’s plan, the guard towers in the centre of each rotunda were designed to be inaccessible from within. They could only be reached from outside, by a single underground passage. In this manner, even if prisoners should manage to escape from their cells and reach the exercise yard at ground level inside the rotundas, they would still have been confined, their keepers unassailable.
To get inside and climb the guard tower we had to do some breaking and entering. We forced a lock on a blockhouse door outside one of the rotundas, then descended a steep flight of steps to the subterranean passageway that led beneath the building. The passage was pitch dark and flooded to waist-level with cold, oily water. Inside, headroom was limited; baulks of timber floated in the water. After wading thirty meters or so through the dark, we found that the tunnel gave on to a steep, narrow spiral staircase, the width of a single person. There was still no glimmer in the darkness. Then, twenty or thirty turns later, at the top of the staircase, a hinged trapdoor opened to the light.
Emerging, we found ourselves looking out on to the huge open space of the inside of the rotunda from its exact centre. The cramped, circular guard post at the top of the tower had been situated, by design, at the mid-point – both vertically and horizontally – of the great space of the building. From here, through long viewing slits, one could gaze unseen, as the guards must have done, day after day, across at the cell-lined walls a hundred feet away, and down towards the exercise yard fifty or sixty feet below. Beyond each cell, through barred windows, there were views of other windows and other cells—three identical rotundas lying forty or fifty unbridgeable meters away. And, after that, the sea.
Standing at the top of the slender tower, we were transformed from unauthorised intruders to Benthamite—or Foucauldian—observers, supervisors of a total institution, all-seeing yet unseen. From this vantage point each cell and each prisoner would have been visible to a single guard, as Bentham had specified.