Panopticon Essay

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Jeremy Bentham’s writings on law and punishment were pivotal in the development of the modern criminal justice system. His reformative ideas defended a legal system based on the dual principles of rationality and utility. He was also known for applying this ethic to the design of buildings that served a distinct social purpose. In 1787, Bentham penned a series of letters to a fellow Englishman, outlining the dimensions of an architectural vision known as the Panopticon; he actually borrowed the plan from his brother, who was working on a different project in Russia called the Inspection House.

Bentham regarded the Panopticon as the ideal architectural plan for any building designed for the supervision of individuals. He advocated this plan for a number of social institutions emerging at the time, including prisons, houses of industry, workhouses, poorhouses, hospitals, mental asylums, and schools.

According to Bentham, the demands compelling these social institutions all could be addressed through the physical design of the building. In fact, he envisioned the Panopticon as a place where morals could be reformed, a work ethic instilled, learning disseminated, the insane protected, health preserved, and public burdens relieved more generally.

As the name Inspection House implies, the underlying assumption of the Panopticon was that the individuals housed within these institutions needed continuous supervision, and the more constant the supervision, the more likely it was that the goals would be realized. The quintessential goal of the Panopticon was a form of supervision so perfected that institutional order, well-being, and behavioral adjustment would naturally follow. Being practical and rational, Bentham also recognized that unremitted supervision was impossible. Consequently, he conceived the next-best scenario, which was for the supervised to believe they were being watched every moment, without ever being able to verify whether that was actually the case.

Aware that a new institution called the penitentiary was being explored in England, Bentham suggested the Panopticon plan would be particularly suited for housing offenders.

Bentham identified several core design features, the first of which was the circular shape of the building, which was to be roughly two stories high and 100 feet in diameter. The cells were to occupy the circumference of the building and have iron bar doors so one could see inside the cell. However, the cells were to be partitioned in a way that prevented all communication between inmates.

A second key feature was the central guard tower, or the inspectors’ lodge, located in the middle of the circular building. Bentham advised that the circular shape and central tower afforded an optimal and efficient view of the inmates; with little effort and physical movement, the inspector could survey the whole interior of the penitentiary. Importantly, Bentham further specified that the tower windows include a type of blind that left inmates uncertain about the actual presence or direct gaze of the overseer. In effect, the tower was emblematic of power and surveillance that was simultaneously visible and unverifiable.

A third key feature of the Panopticon was a reliance on intense and not just imagined surveillance. Bentham maintained that believing oneself to be observed was important and necessary, but it was not a substitute for actual observation. In other words, the perception of being observed would not be internalized unless actual observation was the norm. As far as it was possible, inmates were to be watched for the great majority of time. During this time, the inspector would relay instruction to inmates through a proposed connecting metal tube, increasing their sense of being continuously watched.

The ethical advantage to the Panopticon was that it created a disciplinary apparatus that required neither force nor brutality. Docile and obedient subjects would be created in the gap between the inspectors’ apparent omnipresence and their actual presence; the intentional uncertainty created by this arrangement held out the promise of self-discipline. Presumably, the specter of an all-seeing (omnipresent) and all-knowing (omniscient) keeper would motivate the inmates to become their own custodians. This anticipated result was seen as fiscally prudent as well in that safe conditions could be maintained without needing great numbers of employees.

Bentham additionally claimed the design would increase the transparency and therefore the integrity of social institutions. He speculated that judges and the public would be more willing to visit or audit these undesirable places because the whole institution could be quickly surveyed, without the discomfort of close proximity to the residents. Bentham believed the true conditions of institutions would no longer be hidden as they once were when time constraints permitted examination of only a few of the select cells.

Though the Panopticon was never fully implemented in the institutional setting, its principles have resonated to the present day. Indeed, the mechanisms enabling the few to watch the many have become more penetrating and expansive in contemporary society. Databases, surveillance cameras, and other computer technology in the public and private spheres have spawned a culture of control, whereby observation is not only visible and unverifiable, but very often invisible, permanent, and portable. Whereas panoptic control was once confined to the physical boundaries of the institution, the panoptic control deployed over the past several decades has radiated far beyond the walls of the prison.

Diana Gordon has referred to this pervasive strain of surveillance as an “electronic panopticon.” The concept of the electronic panopticon refers to the sprawling network of record keeping by government entities and, as many other scholars have noted, private sector entities. Monitoring individual or group conduct has become commonplace through closed-circuit televisions and files maintained by criminal justice officials, employers, licensing agencies, charitable organizations, financial institutions, and landlords. In effect, the inspectors’ lodge has become a hi-tech machine that increases the capacity for omniscience and omnipresence.

Panopticism continues to be a key concept for understanding the nature of discipline and control; it has even spawned new ways of thinking about surveillance relationships. For example, Thomas Mathiesen has considered the parallel but opposite concept of synopticism. In this scenario, control and discipline are exerted by way of the many watching the few. Mathiesen contends that via the “institutions” of mass media, a “viewer society” has developed wherein the masses collectively watch and have their consciences shaped by the few. Putting aside the differences, what is notable in this comparison is that under syn- or panoptic conditions, power remains in the hands of the few.


  1. Cohen, Stanley. Visions of Social Control. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985.
  2. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage, 1979.
  3. Gordon, Diana R. The Justice Juggernaut. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  4. Kietzmann, Jan and Ian Angell. “Panopticon Revisited.” Communications of the ACM, v.53/6 (2010).
  5. Mathiesen, Thomas. “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’ Revisited.” Theoretical Criminology, v.1/2 (1997).
  6. Staples, William G. Everyday Surveillance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
  7. Williamson, Kevin D. “Panopticon, New Jersey.” National Review, v.64/24 (2012).

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