Re: Re: LEGAL: Alternatives to imprisonment
Tue, 9 Mar 1999 13:10:56 EST

Damien Broderick cites the Panopticon theory of imprisonment as somewhat a precursor to the present discussion of high-tech imprisonment. That allusion merits some spelling out, since I think it illustrates the naivete of the notion that enough of the right sort of technology will finally cure the prison problem.

In the early 90s I visited Joliet Prison (which proudly, and without apparent irony, calls itself, "Stateville"). The huge and sprawling facility contained a variety of buildings that reflected the evolution of penal theory, among them an honest-to-goodness panopticon. The walls of the panopticon, rising some 5 stories, formed a large circle around a large, empty courtyard. A roof covered the whole. In the center of the courtyard rose a multi-story guard tower, its windows staring out toward the walls. Prisoners' cells lined the inside of the walls, open on the inside to the view from the tower.

In theory, the panopticon's architecture allowed a handful of guards to easily monitor a vast number of prisoners. The guards looked out and across the courtyard directly into the cells. Narrow windows on the outside of the cells ensured that no shadows would harbor wrongdoing. But in practice the panopticon failed and went to an early retirement. I could cite a variety of technical reasons for the panopticon's failure, but the short of the story is that human ingenuity repeatedly worked around the supposed infallibilities of the panopticon's technology.

Perhaps newer and better technology will completely crush the urge to escape confinement and scrutiny. But past examples counsel skepticism on that count.

>This whole discussion is very creepy to anyone with a passing familiarity
>to the 19th C Panopticon theory of imprisonment lambasted so savagely by
>Foucault. For all his faults and extravagances, I suspect he was on the
>money in finding this sort of dehumanisation utterly vile and
>counter-productive (however awful current programs are).

T.0. Morrow