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The Panopticon.


The glass lantern shattered: Jeremy Bentham and the demise of the Panopticon Prison.



LONDON, MARCH 1811. For Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, legal theorist and would-be prison governor, the time had finally come when a decision would be reached on whether his idio­syn­cratic pen­i­ten­tiary, the “Pan­op­ti­con”, first mooted as early as 1787 in a series of letters sent to his father from Russia, would ever get official approval and move beyond the blueprint stage. It was not the first time that the British government had shown an interest in the Panopticon: over a period of ten years from the early 1790s, a series of promises had been made and commitments entered into. Even though a site for the prison had eventually been purchased with public money at Millbank, the vital official go-ahead for construction had never been forthcoming.1

By 1810, the need for a penitentiary was obvious: other punishments were found to be ineffectual, crimes more frequent,  offenders more daring and desperate, public morals more outraged, and the laws more despised.

Now, at last, there was movement. During the parliamentary session of 1809-10, the veteran reforming barrister and MP Sir Samuel Romilly, a friend of Bentham’s, had made a number of speeches in the Commons calling for government action on the penitentiary question. In one debate in June 1810, he drew the attention of members to “how much time has passed since the legislature enacted that penitentiary houses should be erected, [and] that although the ground for erecting them has been bought at great expence to the public, nothing effectual towards establishing them has yet been done.” Adding that “the want of them in the mean time is every day more sensibly felt, that other punishments are found to be ineffectual, that crimes have become more frequent, offenders more daring and desperate, public morals more outraged, and the laws more despised”, Romilly called for immediate action.2

Shortly before this speech, in a letter to a Treasury minister, Bentham had repeated his willingness to go ahead with the project, though the catalogue of disappointments had clearly taken its toll: “[T]heir lordships may rest assured”, he wrote testily, “that notwithstanding all I have suffered, I hold myself still bound to meet that disposition, and as far as depends upon myself, to give effect to it.”3 Others were more effusive. In one of a number of letters to Bentham on the subject written around this time, evangelical Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce expressed his confidence that the House of Commons would soon “awake from its long slumber and wish to establish a [penitentiary] system”, adding: “I am delighted by seeing with my minds eye your Honour like a great spider, sealed in ye Centre of yr Panopticon.”4 Romilly’s motion was defeated, but the thrust of his argument was accepted, and the following March, a parliamentary inquiry was set up under the chairmanship of Gloucestershire MP and Tory evangelical, George Holford; its brief: “to consider the expediency of erecting a Penitentiary House, or Penitentiary Houses”.5

Bentham vacillated during these months between a prudent and occasionally despondent scepticism following so many false dawns in the past, and a hope that the inherent strengths of his scheme would end up wining over even the doubters. For it was no longer a question of whether a convict penitentiary would get government backing, but rather which of the various competing projects would win the day. In this respect, the outlook for the supporters of prison reform on the penitentiary model was better than at any time since the end of the 1770s.

Before we turn to the unfolding of events in the spring of 1811, let us consider in more detail the Panopticon project itself. For many years a little-known aspect of Jeremy Bentham’s thought and action,6 the project achieved fame—or perhaps notoriety would be a better word—as the centrepiece for Michel Foucault’s iconoclastic essay on the history of penal reform, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison (1975).7 We shall have cause to examine Foucault’s take on the Panopticon a little later, but the emphasis in the following discussion will be above all on establishing what, precisely, Bentham was proposing to the Holford Committee in 1811 and why. We shall see that while the principles underlying the Panopticon had much in common with the penitentiary schemes already discussed in this book, there were also some radical departures. As Wilberforce had predicted, Bentham would indeed be “sealed in the centre of his Panopticon”, though not in quite the way the Yorkshire abolitionist had confidently anticipated.

IN 1791, JEREMY BENTHAM, then forty-three years old, published in pamphlet form the twenty-one letters he had dispatched to his father from the Crimea four years earlier. He had joined his brother Samuel, nine years his junior, in Russia in 1785, hoping to find a receptive audience for his legal theories and penal codes at the court of Catherine II. Bentham spent most of the next year and a half in the tiny Russian village of Zadobrast, living a hermit-like existence (and without meeting the Empress herself), completing a series of works on Law and political economy.8  His brother Samuel, meanwhile, a mechanical engineer and naval architect by trade, and more gregarious by temperament, had journeyed widely within the country, having been charged by Catherine’s chief minister Prince Potemkin with supervising a number of military, industrial and agricultural projects. To this end, the Prince had provided Samuel Bentham with virtually unlimited funds and a commission in the Imperial army to boot.9 It was during this intellectually fertile period for Jeremy Bentham that he came up with the idea of the Panopticon; inspired, according to his own account, by Samuel’s attempts to apply the inspection principle to factory management on Potemkin’s immense estates in Krichev, near the Polish border.10  The elder of the Bentham siblings had instructed his father and a friend, George Wilson, to prepare the letters for publication, but to his disappointment, nothing had come of the scheme. Apparently, both had felt that Bentham’s “flying castle” (as he described the Panopticon in a letter to Wilson) needed further work.11

The 1791 collection was entitled Panopticon; or Inspection House, containing the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection; and in particular to penitentiary houses. Two newly-composed Postscripts, the length of which greatly surpassed the original letters, followed later the same year. The preface to the new material opens with a short description of Bentham’s prison scheme. The four-line summary reveals its author’s canny eye for his audience. The project is presented attractively in a series of short, memorable phrases, tacked together in a sentence bristling with hyphens:

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!12

Although later additions and revisions would modify the details of both the structure and management of the Panopticon plan, these staccato lines give a vivid sense of the hopes entertained by Bentham for his prison. He was nothing if not ambitious. Indeed, it seems to have been the force of his conviction that the Panopticon would provide a vindication of his whole philosophical system that explains what has been described as his “fanatical devotion” to the project over the next twenty years.13

To return to the architecture, the central idea behind the Panopticon, as outlined in the 1791 works, was indeed “simple”, and flowed directly from the neologism invented by Bentham to describe the scheme. Its success in every one of the departments cited by the philosopher depended on permanent visibility, though as we shall see this visibility was of a rather particular kind. The objects of this perpetual scrutiny, the “all-seeingness” which gave the prison its name, were of course the prisoners, and everything was done to facilitate the surveillance of inmates by prison staff at any time of the day or night. Bentham’s ingenious solution was to place the prison cells in a ring, four storeys high, around a central, free-standing inspection tower, also circular in shape, the whole placed under a domed roof, topped by a cupola. Each cell, accommodating a single prisoner, would be fitted with a window on the back wall (corresponding to the outer edge of the ring), while on the side facing the tower, an iron grill would maximise visibility. Artificial light, projected via lanterns from the inspection tower, would supplement the natural light entering through the cell windows. The central watchtower, sometimes referred to by Bentham as “the inspector’s lodge”, was also several storeys high. Its large windows were intended to offer an uninterrupted view of the cells, while its relatively small diameter would allow the governor and other prison personnel, in the space of a few strides, to keep all parts of the cell ring under observation. Long, tin “conversation-tubes”, linking the central lodge to the cells, completed the surveillance array; allowing “the slightest whisper” of prisoners to be heard by prison staff, as well as facilitating quick and easy communication in both directions.14

Traditional circular structures had tended to place the audience around the circumference, and the event at the centre. Bentham’s Panopticon reversed this logic.

Circular public buildings had of course been known since Antiquity, but as architectural historian Robin Evans points out, traditional circular structures had tended to place the audience around the circumference, and the event – on a stage, perhaps, or an altar – at the centre.15 Bentham’s Panopticon reversed this logic, by placing the watchers at the centre, and the watched around the circumference. But what was to prevent the watchers from becoming the watched? Clearly with its circular form, modest dimensions and large windows, there was a real danger that those inside the central inspection tower would be revealed for all to see with fish-bowl-like clarity, making it child’s play for prisoners to know when they were being watched, and, crucially, when the supposedly all-seeing eye was looking elsewhere. Surveillance of each cell “during every instant of time” would have been ideal,16 but this would have required a veritable army of prison guards and presumably prohibitive running costs. Bentham’s solution, once again ingenious, was to hide the inspectors behind a complex array of blinds, partitions, multi-level floors and tinted glass.17 Not only would this have the consequence of protecting prison staff from prying eyes, it also had another practical advantage. The fact that prisoners had no way of knowing when they were being watched, meant that it was not necessary to watch them at all times. For what was crucial to the success of the project, according to its inceptor, was not the reality but the illusion of permanent surveillance; what Bentham called “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector (if divines will forgive me the expression,) combined with the extreme facility of his real presence.”18

The key to Bentham’s plan to reform prisoners was to inculcate self-discipline, and the way to achieve this was through the gradual acquisition of habits of industry and obedience until they became automatic. Only through the “perpetual surveillance” of inmates, argued Bentham, could this goal be reached:

Delinquents are a peculiar race of beings, who require unremitted inspection. Their weakness consists in yielding to the seductions of the passing moment. Their minds are weak and disordered, and though their disease is neither so clearly marked nor so incurable as that of ideots and lunatics, like these, they require to be kept under restraints, and they cannot, without danger, be left to themselves.19

For such individuals, Bentham argued, the usual mechanisms of rational behaviour did not function at all, or only weakly. He had set out his ideas on this subject in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). In the book’s famous opening lines, he had argued that all human action results from an individual’s own calculation of the relative quantities of “pain” and “pleasure” believed to flow from his or her life choices:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.20

Everyone, Bentham believed, is in thrall to these “two sovereign masters”, and logically tries to obtain pleasure and avert pain when considering a particular course of action:

By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.21

For Bentham then, the “principle of utility” lies at the root of all human action.22

There would presumably have been little danger in any case of the Panopticon’s inmates being “left to themselves” for very long, but during those short periods of reduced surveillance, what was important was that they should believe that the omniscient eye of inspection was upon them, that “every motion of the limbs, every muscle of the face [was] exposed to view”.23 Only in this way could the weak-willed prisoners be “cured” of their dissolute habits, and their development, arrested and distorted by a life of idleness, drink and debauchery, be set upon a new course.24

BENTHAM CONCEDED THAT this regimen of abstinence, discipline and routine would be extremely irksome to those forced to undergo it, at least initially. After all, as he recognised in a private note, “there is not a moment of their time during which they are not either at work or under discipline”.25 Bentham might have added that inmates at the Panopticon would have been confined to a cell six foot by nine for twenty-three hours a day (except on Sundays), and be set to “walking in a wheel” for the remaining hour, possibly to power one of the range of machines designed by engineer brother Samuel.26 And when, finally, inmates were no longer “either at work or under discipline”, they would end their day in a wooden bed or hammock, their cells bathed in the flickering, artificial light of a distant oil-lamp to facilitate surveillance. Seven and a half hours later, the sound of a bell or a disembodied barked command brought via a conversation-tube would signal that the daily routine was about to start all over again.27

In Postscript II, Bentham confidently predicted, however, that once inmates had become accustomed to the routine of the Panopticon, their “submission” would be interiorised and become automatic:

To apparent submissiveness they will be forced; and, after a time, from apparent submission, real will ensue. Men become at length what they are forced to seem to be: propensities suppressed are weakened and by long-continued suppression killed.28

According to Foucault, Bentham’s prison offered a sinister foretaste of the ubiquitous surveillance technologies that would come to dominate western societies by the latter part of the twentieth century.

It was this combination of omniscient surveillance and unquestioning submission that made the Panopticon such a powerful symbol in the hands of Michel Foucault; a place where the prisoner “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”29 According to the French philosopher, Bentham’s prison offered a sinister foretaste of the ubiquitous surveillance technologies and hegemonic punitive ideology that would come to dominate western societies by the latter part of the twentieth century. Whatever insights Foucault’s analysis offers into contemporary society,30 his discussion of the Panopticon – for all “its persuasive force and rhetorical brilliance”31 – has received short shrift from most Bentham scholars.32 Janet Semple, author of the first book-length study of the Panopticon, sums up a common complaint when she argues that:

Foucault did not pay Bentham the compliment of serious study, the panopticon is reduced to a symbol, it becomes little more than a diagram. […] It is therefore hardly surprising that that is often difficult to tell what actually happened. It is not even clear from Foucault’s account that Bentham’s Panopticon prison was never built and his project seemed at the time a dismal failure.33

Many criminal justice historians have taken a similar view, taking Foucault to task for tearing the Panopticon out of its late eighteenth-century intellectual, political and socio-economic context. In fact, the kind of advanced surveillance technologies and scientifically-perfected punishment regimes associated with Bentham’s scheme in Discipline and Punish would not become a reality in Britain’s gaols until many decades after Bentham’s death. Even then, despite an impressive battery of architectural, technological and managerial innovations, inmates would stubbornly refuse to conform to the automaton-like “docility” expected of them by Foucault’s model.

ENOUGH FOR THE moment of what was the Panopticon was not: back to Bentham and his plans. In many respects, architecture aside, the Panopticon as described thus far resembles other penitentiary-type prisons of the period pretty closely. However, in order to achieve the intensive surveillance necessary to achieve submission from the prisoners, what Bentham was proposing took him into entirely uncharted territory: in the Panopticon, surveillance would not be the sole responsibility of the prison governor and guards. In fact, Bentham envisaged the central inspection tower as a veritable hive of observational activity. To begin with, the governor’s family would be enrolled as part-time inspectors (“the more numerous […] the family, the better”), their voluntary sequestration in the inspection tower leaving them, according to the philosopher, little choice but to spend a great deal of time looking out of the windows.34

However, things would not have stopped there. In addition to these extra pairs of eyes, Bentham envisaged opening the inspection tower to members of the general public, eager for “the gratification of their particular curiosity”. Giving a new twist to the concept of justice being seen to be done, Bentham planned to give the public unlimited access to the prison. There was nothing new of course in admitting outsiders to penal institutions – the condemned cells at London’s Newgate Gaol for example were a popular tourist attraction in the eighteenth century – but the Panopticon’s visitors were expected to do more than simply enjoy the spectacle. These “spontaneous visitors” would become the unwitting eyes and ears of the prison management, as well as providing an incentive to keep the prison clean and orderly.35 Bentham explained that he was not at all interested in the motivations of those drawn thus to the prison. Apparently, he had either not considered or chosen to ignore the possibility noted by historian Gertrude Himmelfarb that such public access to the prison could lead to the Panopticon “try[ing] to compete with the Asylum, Magdalen or Lock Hospital in picturesque and exotic horrors”.36 Or that visitors might have welcomed the ill-treatment of prisoners as a case of just desserts, rather than condemned it.

IN BETWEEN THE conception of the original letters in 1787 and their publication along with the Postscripts in 1791, the Panopticon had passed from being little more than a philosophical idea in three dimensions to a detailed blueprint, complete with architectural plans. Plans for the central governor’s lodge and the associated paraphernalia of inspection had undergone considerable change in the intervening period, thanks in part to the contribution of a young architect, Willey Reveley (1760-99), recruited by Bentham to give practical form to his ideas for the Panopticon. Although a recognised authority on Greek architecture, Reveley, whom Bentham had first met on his Russian travels, had no previous experience in designing prisons.37The result of these changes was summed up in an oft-quoted passage from Bentham’s 1798 pamphlet, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive Mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts, where he described the Panopticon as follows: “The building circular – an iron cage, glazed, a glass lantern, about the size of Ranelagh – the prisoners, in their cells, occupying the circumference – the officers, governors (chaplain, surgeon, etc.) the center.”38

Reveley’s designs cannot be faulted for their neo-classical elegance, nor can the audacity of the scheme be gainsaid; notably the decision to choose iron and glass over brick and stone as the principal building materials. However, as historians Janet Semple and Philip Steadman have shown, for all its ingenuity, considerable question marks remain as to whether the new-look Panopticon could have functioned effectively as a prison.39 Semple notes for example that getting from the inspector’s lodge into the yards separating it from the cells “entailed a journey of frightening complexity, across ‘the inspector’s inner bridge’, down ‘the inspector’s drop’ to ‘the inspector’s landing place’ and through ‘the inspector’s straits’”. She adds that “the journey was only possible for the active and slim, as the drop was only 2 feet wide”.40 Bentham freely admitted this constraint, but remained unapologetic, commenting bluntly that “a man of greater corpulency [was] certainly not fit to bear an executive part in the government of a prison.”41 Corpulent or not, it was to be hoped that the governor would not be required urgently in the Panopticon’s yards. The prison warders would have not been much better placed, as Philip Steadman explains: “To get to a trouble spot a warder would have had to run to a staircase, go up or down to a bridge, unlock the security gate on the bridge, and run round the gallery to the cell in question.” To compound the difficulties, the open-fronted cells would have meant that warders on their way to a trouble spot could be seen coming from a great distance, and thus any element of surprise would have been inevitably lost.42

Following Reveley’s suggestion, the governor’s living quarters were moved out of the central inspection tower into more comfortable accommodation set into the circular outer walls of the prison. The tower was thus given over entirely to administration and inspection. However, a major re-think was judged necessary, with the original central inspection space now considered too gloomy to allow any other tasks than those of discreet surveillance (even when working by candle-light, it was reasoned, prison staff could give away their presence in the tower), while the complicated system of partitions and blinds was now seen to make observation more difficult rather than facilitate it. Reveley’s solution was to bring light into the central inspection tower by means of a giant annular roof-light and oculus, and to relocate the turnkeys. No longer required to observe from within the inspector’s lodge, they would instead patrol on a set of three raised galleries placed at different heights outside the tower (the lowermost at the level of the lodge), occupying the previously empty space between the central tower and the cells. Each of these aerial galleries, supported on cast iron columns, offered a view into two storeys of cells, the prison being now on six levels, instead of the four originally planned. Again, blinds, together with the copious use of black paint, would make the occupants of the galleries invisible from the cells, while the governor, ensconced in his lodge in the central part of the tower, could observe both prisoners and guards via small peep-holes, set into muslin or linen blinds covering the windows.43

ANOTHER MAJOR MODIFICATION of the Panopticon plan between the Letters and the Postscripts concerned the accommodation for the prisoners. In the former, it was explicitly assumed that separate confinement would need to constitute the cornerstone of the prison regime, a position first publicly voiced by Bentham in his 1778 pamphlet, A View of the Hard Labour Bill.44 Evidently, in the 1770s and ’80s, Bentham had subscribed to the view shared by most reformers that solitude was the most effective – in fact, probably the only – way to obtain reformation.45 However, by the time of the Postscripts, Bentham had come to believe that, unlike for Howard, it was not a matter of leaving the prisoner in the sole company of his Maker to contemplate the enormity of his crimes and seek penitence in private; more pragmatic considerations seemed to have prevailed. As Semple puts it bluntly, “Bentham’s felon was in his cell to work, not to pray”.46 Separate confinement was now rejected outright, condemned as “enabl[ing] you to screw up the punishment to a degree of barbarous perfection never given to it in any English prison, and scarcely to be given it by any other means.”47 Instead, he proposed “mitigated seclusion”, with two or three carefully selected inmates sharing a cell, increased in dimensions for the purpose.48 While John Howard’s mature views, as expounded in his An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe (1789), probably played a significant role in Bentham’s change of heart on the subject of separate confinement, mitigated “seclusion” also possessed clear advantages from an economic point of view. Not only would cell-sharing have allowed savings to be made on construction and running costs (with fewer walls, cheaper heating and lighting for example), it would also, Bentham argued, permit greater flexibility in the use of the prisoner workforce. Larger machines could be introduced, as could trades requiring cooperation between several workers. At the same time, skills could be transmitted from more experienced prisoner-workers to novices – a kind of carceral version of the apprenticeship system – and productivity improved by the boosting of “spirits” or what we would call motivation, as a result of prisoners working in teams rather than in solitude.49

In Bentham’s conception, the Panopticon’s governor would effectively act as a private contractor, dependent on “the fruits of his own industry” to support himself.

This was clearly an important consideration for Bentham, and not just because, as we shall see presently, as governor-cum-contractor of the Panopticon, he would have benefitted financially.50 This was important to the success of the project on a number of levels. First, on a practical level, Bentham conceived his prison as a more or less self-sufficient enterprise, requiring little in the way of public subsidy, unlike Howard’s “Penitentiary-town”, which he condescendingly disparaged in this, as in other, respects. The principal running costs of the prison, including the salaries of governor and staff, would be met out of the profits generated by the prisoners’ labour. In fact, in Bentham’s conception, as laid out in Postscript II, the Panopticon’s governor would effectively act as a private contractor, dependent on “the fruits of his own industry” to support himself. He contrasted this with the management system envisaged by the Penitentiary Act, with a salaried “placeman” (or worse, a committee of placemen, with a gaggle of “remainder-men” hanging on their coat-tails) charged with running the prison. To Bentham, such a system was nothing less than an encouragement to corruption and sloth – the latter clearly considered as unforgiveable in managers as it was among prisoners.51 In his view, it was only by courting the self-interest of the contractor that an efficient prison regime was to be guaranteed: “the greater the success of the management, the stronger the motive he has to do his utmost to increase it.”52

Bentham anticipated the charge that the governor-contractor, required to make profit from the labour of prisoners, would have every encouragement to exploit them mercilessly. Perhaps in an effort to wrong-foot his potential critics, he cheerfully described the prison contractor in the Postscripts as “the cruellest of vampires”, who, left to his own devices, would seek to suck dry the lifeblood of his captive workforce of “imprisoned and friendless poor”53 This lucidity is particularly surprising when we learn that Bentham envisaged none other than himself for the job of governor-contractor. In a revealing manuscript note preserved in the Bentham archive at University College London, the philosopher jotted down what he considered to be his qualifications for the post:

JB A man of responsible circumstances, of unexceptionable character, of a liberal education, of an honourable profession – not altogether unknown in the literary world who quitted that profession to no other purpose, than to devote himself exclusively to the service of mankind, a man who was the friend of Howard and in the confidence of all his plans and whose services in the original framing of the Penitentiary Act stand recognized under the hand of Blackstone.54

Here then was that perfect combination of interest and duty – what Bentham described as “the strongest cement that can be found”55 – concentrated in one man: himself. But if he would indeed comport himself like a vampire, or try to, were he to be appointed governor-contractor, would not this undermine his whole argument? Bentham cleverly turned the arguments of his anticipated critics against them. When faced with a choice between a vampire and a sloth, and a corrupt sloth at that, Bentham sought to demonstrate that in reality the choice was self-evident. However, before the vampire could be granted access to the blood bank, as it were, it was vital that two conditions were strictly adhered to: first, that the terms and conditions of his contract set out in detail the minimum requirements expected of the governor-contractor in terms of working and living conditions in the prison (hours, rest periods, exercise, diet, etc.), and second, that he was himself subject to rigorous outside inspection to ensure that those terms and conditions were respected.56 Here again, Bentham counted on the multiple opportunities for public access to the Panopticon to ensure that the rules were respected and prisoners well-treated.57He confidently anticipated that “[n]either avarice nor negligence [could] hope to find a lurking place” in his prison.58

We have noted that Bentham’s emphasis on prison labour was not only a matter of providing funding for the establishment and salaries for its officers. In fact, in his conception, work also had a vital role to play in the reformation of the Panopticon’s inmates. It will be recalled that Bentham confidently predicted that if the penitentiary scheme was approved, morals would be reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, the economy strengthened and the Poor Law rendered unnecessary. How was this impressive catalogue of beneficial consequences to be achieved? One aspect of the answer brings us back to our earlier discussion of Bentham’s conception of the criminal mind, and how it was to be “cured” of its delinquent features. For him, as for other reformers steeped in Enlightenment thought, the criminal was capable, like any other individual, of rational thought and was thus at a fundamental level responsible for his own actions. However, in the case of criminals, that capacity for rationality and for making the right moral choices had been clouded, distorted if you will, by corrupting influences, which had led them into bad habits, and ultimately into a life of crime. Those habits – chief among which was “idleness” – needed to be stripped away and replaced with more wholesome ones, and work, that “great engine of reformation”,59 was the means by which that transformation was to be achieved. Indeed, it was the prisoners’ capacity for labour, explained Bentham in a private note, his “habits of industry”, that were “perhaps the only criterion of their again becoming proper members of society.”60

THERE WAS NOTHING unusual in reforming circles about wishing to see prisoners subjected to a strict regimen of labour, often the more tedious and self-evidently useless the better. Many argued that the threat of corporal punishment, possibly combined with a reduction of an already inadequate diet, would provide incentive enough to set prisoners to work. For Bentham, however, it was wholly inappropriate to force prisoners to work, just as he eschewed corporal punishment to impose discipline. For reformation to be more than skin-deep, prisoners needed to make that choice themselves. In order to achieve this – given the unpromising raw material – powerful incentives, or as Bentham put it, “rewards”, needed to be offered.61 Thus in the Panopticon, no prisoner would be forced to labour at all. Each would be quite at liberty, as Bentham put it, to do nothing “from morning till night, but to eat his bad bread and drink his water, without a soul to speak to.”62 For those choosing to work, on the other hand, there would be the “reward” of occupying the long hours of solitary imprisonment, but in addition there would be a share in any profits made by the trade or manufacture carried out in the prison. In one of his writings, Bentham set this share at 25 per cent, with the remainder retained by the prison governor in lieu of a salary.63 The inmates’ share would above all provide them with “subsistence after the expiration of their terms”; more immediately it would also pay for “meat and beer, or whatever else his earnings may afford [them]”. “Not a single stroke does he strike”, he adds, “but he gets something which he would not have got otherwise.”64

With classic liberal reasoning, Bentham saw a perfect harmony of interest between the prisoner-worker and governor-contractor.

With classic liberal reasoning, Bentham saw a perfect harmony of interest between the prisoner-worker and governor-contractor. For him, “The turning of the prisoner’s labour into the most profitable channels” would depend “upon the joint choice of the two only parties interested in pushing the advantage to the utmost.”65 Presented in this way, labour in the Panopticon would offer a perfect combination of the three principles according to which the Panopticon enterprise – in every sense of that term – was to be organised: lenity, severity and economy.66 The prison governor-contractor would be forbidden by law from starving or physically mistreating the prisoners in his charge, so flogging and irons would be banished from the Panopticon, though it might be necessary to have recourse to straitjackets, gags, and a punitive diet to maintain order.67

Within those limits set by the principle of “lenity”, Bentham appears to suggest that prisoners should be worked as hard as humanly possible (“severity”), and for as little financial reward as possible (“economy”). In a sense, the labour relationship is reduced here to its purest – and presumably for Bentham – its most satisfactory form. Thus in the Panopticon, the wheels of industry could have run with preternatural precision, free of the grit which throws machinery off-kilter in the outside world:

What hold can any other manufacturer have upon his workmen equal to what my manufacturer would have upon his? What other master is there that can reduce his workmen, if idle, to a situation next to starving, without suffering them to go elsewhere? What other master is there, whose men can never get drunk unless he chooses they should do so? and who, so far from being able to raise their wages by combination, are obliged to take whatever pittance he thinks it most for his interest to allow? […] And to crown the whole by the great advantage which is the peculiar fruit of this new principle, what other master or manufacturer is there, who to appearance constantly, and in reality as much as he thinks proper, has every look and motion of each workman under his eye?68

All of this may indeed appear to resemble a classic formula for the exploitation of labour, but, as Janet Semple convincingly argues, “[t]here is no necessary contradiction in perceiving the Panopticon both as a utopia and as an instrument of oppression.” According to Bentham, she continues, “[s]equestered from the sources of evil and idleness, men would learn to love labour, they would be inured to habitual industry and live peaceful, innocent productive lives.”69 Thus for Bentham, the contract between governor and prisoners would be in the best interests of both, not merely a licence to squeeze the last drop of productive effort from the Panopticon’s captive workforce. Gradually, inmates would be liberated from the twin evils of drink and idleness, both endemic on the outside, permitting the work ethic to be internalised. Only in this way, it was argued, could a life free from both poverty and crime be guaranteed for ex-prisoners. The Panopticon’s inmates might even, Bentham argued in an undated manuscript note, be reconciled to the loss of liberty and deprivation of privacy during their enforced stay in the prison. “In time”, he wrote, “they will become accustomed to it and the galling roughness of their chains will be smoothed away by use.”70 Perhaps the treadwheel and round-the-clock surveillance had unforeseen “smoothing” properties, but most modern commentators remain unconvinced.71

We have seen that Bentham believed passionately in the capacity for public scrutiny to provide a counter-weight to official power. He was aware that his plan gave the governor-contractor sweeping powers, and even if he reckoned that financial interest would generally ensure that prisoners were well-treated, and that the three principles of lenity, severity and economy were respected in practice, he evidently believed that the potential for neglect and abuse (as well as for sheer incompetence) remained a real one. The solution was to hit the contractor where it hurt most, in his wallet. Thus, he imagined a scheme whereby the governor-contractor would be fined £50 for each successful escape, up to £25 if an ex-prisoner was reconvicted (with a sliding scale according to the gravity of the crime), and even made to pay “so much for every one that died”.72 This novel kind of life insurance scheme – already practiced in the period by the British government in its dealings with shipping companies transporting convicts to the Australian penal colony at Botany Bay – may offend modern human notions of the dignity of human life, but for Bentham it was infinitely preferable to simply relying on those government “placemen” to obey the rules.73 In this respect, Bentham would prove remarkably prescient.

It was vital in Bentham’s mind that the prison work not merely to reform the relatively small number of prisoners but that it deter potential criminals from committing crime “by the terror of the example”.

The Panopticon was not, however, conceived purely as “a mill for grinding rogues honest, and idle men industrious”, as he put it grimly in November 1791 in a letter to a French correspondent,74 important though that was. In order to achieve the multiple benefits listed in that passage from the preface to the Postscripts published the same year, it was vital in Bentham’s mind that the prison work not merely to reform the relatively small number of prisoners who passed through its gates, but that it serve a more general exemplary purpose, deterring potential criminals from committing crime “by the terror of the example”.75 In this respect, Bentham’s views on punishment were perfectly consistent with the conventional reasoning of his day that justified the existence of “exemplary” capital sentences for a wide range of property crimes, though Bentham had other objections to the aptly-named “bloody code”.76 For Bentham, general prevention required a deterrent example and this was where the prison came into its own.77 In Himmelfarb’s pithy phrase, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number might thus require the greatest misery of the few.”78

First of all, the very idea of the prison had a vital role to play: “There is no individual insensible to the privation of liberty – to the interruption of all his habits, and especially of all his social habits.” In the Panopticon, the admission of the public would, he reasoned, make this point with particular force, but, he added,

[…] even if the prisoners are not seen, the prison is visible. The appearance of this habitation of penitence may strike the imagination and awaken a salutary terror. Buildings employed for this purpose ought therefore to have a character of seclusion and restraint, which should take away all hope of escape, and should say, ‘This is the dwelling place of crime.’79

Bentham even made some suggestions as to how this “salutary terror” might be achieved in architectural terms. In a section of the Rationale entitled “General Scheme of Imprisonment”, he distinguished between three kinds of prison, one for debtors, one for reformable offenders, and the last for the truly incorrigible. He named these three establishments the “House of Safe Custody”, the “Penitentiary House” and the “Black Prison” and indicated that they should be painted in white, grey and black respectively. Further details follow:

On the outside of the two last kinds of prisons may be represented various figures, emblematical of the supposed dispositions of the persons confined in them. A monkey, a fox, and a tiger, representing mischief, cunning, and rapacity, the sources of all crimes, would certainly form more appropriate decorations for a prison than the two statues of melancholy and raving madness, formerly standing before Bedlam.80

Bentham was aware that his suggestions for such “emblematical figures” – perhaps more suggestive of a Gothic novel than a serious penal establishment – would “to a man of wit […] serve as a matter of ridicule”.81 However, he clearly considered his ideas on the subject important enough to include in his 1778 pamphlet A View of the Hard Labour Bill, along with some examples of appropriately salutary mottos.82 “Let me not be accused of trifling,” he wrote in justification for these latter remarks, “those who know mankind, know to what a degree the imagination of the multitude is liable to be influenced by circumstances as trivial as these.”83 He may nevertheless have considered the subject too “trivial” for inclusion in his proposals for the Panopticon drawn up during the following decade. Possibly though, had the prison seen the light of day, and Bentham been appointed its governor-contractor, prisoners and visitors alike would have been greeted on arrival with the motto “Violence and knavery/Are the roads to slavery”, accompanied by a bas-relief of a wolf and a fox yoked together to a cart, with a driver whipping them.

FOR ALL  THE apparent implausibility of such suggestions, the Panopticon was no mere philosophical whimsy on Bentham’s part. Indeed, before even the Letters were published, he had written to prime minister William Pitt urging the government to examine carefully his “proposal for carrying into execution the Penitentiary system”.84 The governments of both Ireland and France would also be sounded out on the subject during this period, though without any tangible results.85 Bentham admitted that his letter to Pitt was “in some degree premature” (copies of his pamphlet were not yet ready, but were, he added hopefully, “expected every day” from the publishers in Dublin). He sought to impress on the prime minister, however, that time was of the essence, and cited the high mortality rates on board the Hulks to back up his argument.86 Interestingly, Bentham also hinted in his letter to Pitt that time might be running out for the Panopticon, that “the door might have been shut against it” by “some pre-engagement” of the government to spending on its newly-resurrected transportation scheme.87 In the event, Pitt and his ministers left the door ajar rather than shutting it definitively against the Panopticon, but Bentham was right to be worried about competition from the new penal colony in New South Wales. In fact, for a generation after its resumption in 1788, there would be no real political will to seek an alternative to transportation for dealing with the country’s convicts, though individual ministers and officials certainly showed intermittent, and at least in some cases, probably genuine interest in the Panopticon.88

Ten years earlier, at the beginning of the 1780s, it might have been a very different story. With the government looking around for solutions following the collapse of the three-man penitentiary commission, and against the backdrop of an alarming rise in the number of convicts in the hulks and local prisons following the interruption of transportation to North America, it is quite possible that the Panopticon would have been seized upon with alacrity.89 As it was, the project would be subjected to the ignominy of death by a thousand pen strokes.

Or had its obituary been announced prematurely? Could Sir Samuel Romilly’s speeches in the Commons in May and June 1810 represent one last chance for Bentham and his Panopticon? The mood in parliament and the country was certainly more propitious than it had been for the best part of twenty years. Aided by a vocal evangelical lobby, Romilly himself had been active in pushing the cause of law reform since 1808, and with growing doubts about both the legitimacy of the bloody code, and the efficacy of the existing alternatives – namely transportation and the hulks – support for exploring the possibility of a national penitentiary appeared to be gathering pace. 90

Bentham wrote despondently to Wilberforce: “I should lay about ten to one that a determination has been taken not to set the business on foot upon any scale; and that the letter is but one step in a plan for my ruin”.

It is difficult to gauge Bentham’s mood at this time with any precision. Certainly, his behaviour during the months leading up to his appearance before the Holford Committee at the end of March 1811 does not suggest that he expected the Panopticon to be rejected out of hand, nor indeed does the tenor of the oral and written evidence he presented to the committee.91 At times, however, he was clearly beset by doubts. In January 1811, he received a letter from the Treasury reviving a bone of contention from the previous decade, asking whether he would be prepared to manage a prison “upon the limited terms for 500 persons” (rather than the 1000 plus which Bentham himself favoured).92 Ominously, the same letter also inquired what compensation from the government he would consider appropriate “in the event of the penitentiary plan being relinquished altogether”.93 Bentham replied tersely that since the original contract had been for 1000 inmates; agreeing to the new proposal – “but half the plan” – was out of the question. As for compensation, that was a subject only to be discussed if and when the project was abandoned.94 The day before dispatching his missive to the Treasury, Bentham wrote despondently to Wilberforce: “I should lay about ten to one that a determination has been taken not to set the business [of the Panopticon] on foot upon any scale; and that the letter is but one step in a plan for my ruin”.95

This idea that the dice had been loaded against the Panopticon from the start, and therefore that the Holford Committee “was a thing settled beforehand” (as his friend Reginald Pole Carew claimed when the two men met by chance in June 181196), was a recurrent theme in Bentham’s writings in the days and months after the Holford Committee released its report, both in his correspondence and private papers. There are indeed strong indicators pointing in the direction of the foregone conclusion thesis; notably the fact that George Holford had clearly come to the chairmanship of the Penitentiary Committee not only harbouring a deep-seated antipathy to several key features of the Panopticon, but also, crucially, with an alternative plan of his own, albeit one in embryo stage. And with the principal witnesses called to give evidence before the committee known supporters of Holford’s Howardian conception of penitentiary management, rather than Bentham’s own, the writing was probably on the committee room wall, at least for those inclined to read it.

The Committee on the Laws relating to Penitentiary Houses, as it was officially called, started hearing evidence on Friday, March 8, 1811. Five witnesses were called: Sir George Paul, the Reverend John T. Becher, John Addison Newman, Jeremy Bentham and James Ives – in that order. It is surely no accident that Holford chose to open proceedings with the testimony of his two star witnesses; both well-known prison reformers, and both, in their different ways, men who broadly shared his own vision of how a model prison should be run. Bentham, meanwhile, was sandwiched between two lower-status witnesses, the governors or “keepers” of Newgate and Southwark gaols.

The testimony of Becher and Paul left no doubt concerning their opinion of the philosopher’s scheme. Indeed, virtually every aspect of the structure and management regime proposed by Bentham came under their disapproving panoptic gaze. Becher, a Nottinghamshire visiting magistrate who had been closely involved in putting in place a penitentiary-type regime at Southwell House of Correction in 1806, was particularly outspoken, presenting Bentham’s prison as a nightmarish vision of caged savagery:

To convey an adequate representation of a Panopticon Penitentiary, we may suppose a watch tower encircled by an external gallery, and surrounded at a small distance with six rows of cages, nearly similar to those used for the restraining [of] wild beasts. Let the whole be connected under the same roof, with a sky-light over the area, and we shall have a Panopticon. Occupy these cages with 1,000 convicts, and the whole will exhibit an assemblage of human beings with the same ferocious dispositions, the same offensive exhalations, and the same degrading propensities, that characterize the brute creation.97

Bentham himself had to wait until Wednesday, March 27, with the committee into its third week of hearing evidence, before being called to testify.98 Using his private notes from the period, his lengthy correspondence, as well as the published verbatim minutes appended to the report, we shall attempt to reconstruct in some detail the events of the following week, events which effectively sealed the fate of the Panopticon prison. In his 1791 letter to William Pitt, it will be recalled that Bentham had expressed his concern that the door had already been “shut against” his project. As Bentham proceeded to “the destined place of my examination” a little over twenty years later, all the evidence suggests that he firmly believed he still had a foot in the door; that the government would probably quibble over the details and try and wriggle out of certain of its commitments, but that, at the end of the day, it would honour the spirit of the contract negotiated in the 1790s.

SEEN FROM THIS perspective, the opening round of questions probably came as no surprise to Bentham, for it did not concern either the construction plans or management regime of the Panopticon, but rather plunged straight into the minutiae of the contract drawn up in the 1790s. A long series of questions followed on the subject of the parcel of land that had been purchased for the penitentiary at Millbank in 1799. Its size and suitability for the job in hand seemed to have particularly exercised the committee members, and close attention was paid to the fact that Bentham clearly considered the plot less than satisfactory, both in terms of its limited dimensions and apparent vulnerability to flooding. When asked if the Millbank site could nevertheless be prepared for construction, and at what cost, Bentham replied truculently, “Certainly it would be possible; but […] what that expense may be, it is impossible for me to say. I should suppose it might be equal to the expense of purchasing that additional site [at Tothill Fields], which I look upon as more eligible.”99

The same rather prickly mood pervades the rest of the day’s proceedings, with the committee pushing Bentham to concede that a viable penitentiary could be built on the Millbank site, and asking him to stipulate the terms under which he would be prepared to enter into a new contract to operate it. Bentham was evidently unwilling to enter into specifics. Arguing that circumstances had “undergone a great change”, he stated noncommittally that “there might be terms upon which I should be willing now to undertake it”. However, when pressed on the question, he replied, in words echoing his Treasury letter in January: “I should be unwilling to set about any such calculation, unless I were already well assured of its being, at the time in question, the real design of the Government to contract with me.”100

As the committee turned its attention back to the terms of the earlier contract, the tone of the questions clearly indicate surprise that Bentham had been given so much freedom of action; that neither the architectural plans nor the “internal detail of the building” had been stipulated in advance. When the reply came that this was indeed the case, there was palpable astonishment in the air: “Then is the Committee to understand that it was open to you, provided you lodged the convicts so as to prevent their escaping, and furnished them with proper accommodation, to lodge them as you pleased?”

Clearly, the committee favoured the model laid down in the 1779 Penitentiary Act, with an explicit schedule of rules and regulations governing every last aspect of the prison layout and regime — this was the principle adopted at both Southwell House of Correction and Gloucester Gaol, as Paul and Becher’s testimony had made clear.101 In this context, the fact that senior government figures like Dundas and Pitt had seen models of the Panopticon (constructed with brother Samuel’s help), at Bentham’s Queen Square Place home and expressed their satisfaction with the design,102 was neither here nor there.

The day’s proceedings did not finish any better for Bentham than they had started. With earlier questions apparently having established to the committee’s satisfaction that he was pretty much free to do whatever he liked inside the Panopticon, members turned their attention to one of Bentham’s proposals from the Postscripts, namely that of multiple occupancy in the cells. It is no coincidence of course that Holford chose to raise this subject at this precise moment. With this suggestion, Bentham was flagrantly challenging the consensus since Howard – and reiterated by Paul and Becher in their testimony – that the strict separation of inmates, with the possible exception of limited periods of day-time association for work purposes, was the cornerstone of successful penitentiary management. When Bentham explained, apparently unaware of the dangerous under-currents in the room, that the numbers sleeping in each cell “would be determined by the number in the cell”, adding helpfully, “I fancy in hammocks that would have been let down from the ceiling”, he was then asked: “Did it occur to you that there were any objections to more than one sleeping in the same room, or had you any means of remedying the objection?” The insinuation of course was that such arrangements would encourage homosexuality in the prison. Refusing to rise to the bait (or perhaps unaware that it had been placed), Bentham’s reply emphasised the key role to be played by multiple inspection in the Panopticon in this as in other respects. And in order to emphasise that this effort could be pursued around the clock, he launched into a detailed exposition of his scheme for night-time illumination of the prison.103 Perhaps his audience was only half-listening by this juncture. In any case, it is likely that minds had been made up, and black marks attributed.

THERE WAS ONE last twist to events on Bentham’s first day before the committee. At some point during the proceedings, he was passed a written note from Holford, containing two questions: the first asked whether he would be prepared to build and run a prison with a mixed population of 400 male and 300 female or 700 male and 300 female inmates, while the second raised again that old chestnut of possible compensation should the Panopticon plan be rejected.104

Bentham replied in two stages.105 In a first letter, sent on Friday, 29 March, he sought to reply to Holford’s questions, but also to expand on some of his answers from the previous Wednesday, adding that he hoped his written comments to the committee would avoid the necessity of his appearing in person, adding that oral testimony was “a mode of communication so ill adapted to the nature of the case”.106 Possibly this last remark reflects an awareness on Bentham’s part that he had not got the better of the exchanges in the committee room two days previously. His letter evidently attempts to remedy the situation, but its author was seemingly caught between two contradictory impulses: the one (already seen in his oral testimony on the Wednesday) not to enter into detail regarding his terms for building and running the prison in advance of a firm commitment from the government that such a contract would be forthcoming; the other, a wish to convince the committee that viable plans for the prison did indeed exist and could be mobilised at short notice.107

As far as Holford’s substantive question was concerned, Bentham asked for more time to prepare, and a second letter, considerably longer than the first, was duly dispatched to the committee the following Monday (April 1). In it, Bentham cleverly (or rashly?) circumvented the question of downsizing the male contingent in the prison, by proposing to retain the 1000-strong male population, but to add to it 300 female inmates, explaining that as contractor, he would himself bear the costs of the additional numbers (on the assumption that the work generated by female labour would not cover the expenses they incurred).108

Bentham’s letter of April 1 only partially succeeded in keeping a lid on his irritation at the Holford committee’s apparent obsession with cutting prisoner numbers. His surviving private notes on the subject – written, as was often the case, in the third person – reveal rather stronger emotions at work, with Bentham clearly feeling keenly that such official manoeuvrings represented not only “a breach of good faith”, but risked staining his reputation indelibly, and with it that of the Panopticon:

Injury to the establishment from the injury to J.B.’s reputation by the mark of disesteem imprinted upon him by such a reduction. In requisites moral and intellectual eighteen years ago he was deemed adequate to the whole – now it is not thought safe to trust him with more than half.109

Elsewhere in the same list of points, he noted gloomily that the recompense for all the time and trouble he had put into the project was now going to be “but half what it was agreed to be (talents estimated at nothing)”, and a little later, that the “stigma” resulting from his being “lower[ed] in public estimation […] cannot but diminish his power of doing good.” Bentham had evidently wrestled with his conscience on this issue. He was tempted to refuse to have anything to do with such shabby tactics and call his tormentors’ bluff, but seems to have decided that even “to do but half the good he was promised” was better than doing no good at all, and he resolved therefore “not [to] refuse even on the terms now proposed.”110 Unable, as his letter to Holford had also indicated, to comprehend why the project was now considered “fit to be executed upon half the scale agreed upon”, but not “fit to be executed upon the whole”, Bentham hinted darkly that the proposed cut was motivated by nothing more than “mere will”, in other words, by malice.111

Back in the committee room, Bentham’s second letter presumably having been read out or circulated among the members, it was time for his second – and final – appearance in person before them. The discussion on this occasion centred on the powers and responsibilities of the Panopticon’s governor-contractor, and once again the tenor of the questions suggests a mixture of incredulity, scepticism and disapprobation on the part of the committee. The model against which the Panopticon project was measured – and generally found wanting – was again that of a penitentiary regulated by statute and run by disinterested public servants, a notion which, as we have seen, Bentham considered a contradiction in terms.112 Once again, we see two opposing conceptions of prison management, and behind them, two opposing penal philosophies facing each other across the committee room floor; circling each other like pugilists, but each failing to land a winning blow because each played by different rules. A particularly revealing sequence in Bentham’s testimony concerns the question of the role to be played by employment in the Panopticon. The exchange goes right to the heart of what separated the two penal models, and is worth quoting at some length:

[Committee:] Is it not likely that under a contract of this kind, encouragement and indulgence would be given to prisoners, rather in proportion to their abilities as workmen, than to their apparent contrition and reformation?

[Bentham:] Indulgence and treatment of every sort must be governed by appearances; there may be apparent contrition where there is not real. I am no searcher of hearts; I can judge only from appearances. Indulgence will be in proportion to their earnings. I provide for them a certain proportion of their earnings, and that is all the indulgence they would have. […]

[Committee:] What security is there that under this contract the prisoner may not be overworked?

[Bentham:] There is the security that he will find it more easy to complain in my establishment than in any other: and there is the security that if he is overworked, to a considerable degree, he will be in ill health, and I will be the loser.

[Committee:] Why has he more opportunity of complaining under your system than any other?

[Bentham:] In the first place, because he has more easy opportunities of intercourse for any such purpose with his friends. In the next place, because there is not only a resident Governor, but so many other official persons who will be constantly resident in the Inspector’s Lodge, to any of whom it would always be open to him to make complaint. There is the Chaplain, there is the medical Curator, there are Instructors. […A]nd he is every moment of his time under the actual view of an indefinite number of other persons, on condition of their making use of their eyes.

[Committee:] Are not those all official persons whom you mention appointed by the Governor, and removable at his pleasure?

[Bentham:] Doubtless they are and must be. But suppose any such official person to be under apprehension of my displeasure, and by that apprehension to be stopped from making any complaint, or from appearing active in making or promoting such complaint, he has nothing to do but to mention it to some person unknown to me, and that unknown person makes the complaint.

[Committee:] May not persons appointed by the Governor, be prevented from the preferring complaints against him by goodwill towards him, as well as from fear of his displeasure.

[Bentham:] That is always possible. But suppose them all in league, with the Governor, against the prisoners, this will not prevent complaints from being made against him and them by the prisoners.113

Here again, we see Bentham’s faith in the beneficial effects of inspection, while the committee clearly considered power to be concentrated to an unacceptable degree in the person of one private individual: the governor-contractor. But more than that, we see what Janet Semple aptly calls the “unbridgeable chasm” between the two conceptions of prison management which confronted each other in 1811: between Bentham’s on the one hand and on the other, that of Howard, embodied by Holford, Paul and Becher:

Howard’s prisoner would have solitude to reflect alone and repent of his sins alone; Bentham’s would be constantly under inspection, constantly subject to the external pressure and manipulation of his gaoler, never free to face his guilt or his Maker and to suffer the agonies of his repentance in private.114

If Bentham was aware of that chasm, he clearly did not consider it “unbridgeable”, at least not yet.

The Holford Committee’s report was published on May 31, 1811. Citing with approval the testimony of Paul and Becher, the committee expressed its conviction that

[…] many offenders may be reclaimed by a system of Penitentiary imprisonment; by which Your committee mean a system of imprisonment, not confined to the safe custody of the person, but extending to the reformation and improvement of the mind, and operating by seclusion, employment, and religious instruction.115

Only some six pages later, at the end of a lengthy consideration of the adequacy of existing legislation to provide the statutory basis for the proposed penitentiary, is there any mention of Bentham’s project.116 Noting that the philosopher was “still desirous that the Contract, to which, though not actually signed, he conceives the public faith to be fully pledged, should be carried into effect”, the report proceeds to list a number of fundamental objections to the Panopticon. As might have been expected, the absence of a statutory and regulatory framework for the prison comes in for particular censure; the fact that with certain exceptions, every aspect of the penitentiary regime would be “entirely left at the discretion or will of the Contractor”; and every member of staff “placed there by his appointment, and removable at his pleasure.”117

Concern is also expressed about the governor personally profiting from the sale of food and other provisions to the prisoners, but even if these points could be addressed (as Bentham had argued) by a fixed dietary and/or the presence of a resident inspector, this would not, the committee argued, address the fundamental problem, which was that

[…] the Public could have no reasonable assurance that sufficient attention would be paid to the religious instruction and moral improvement of the prisoners under a system of management, every part of which is to be formed and directed by one person, whose interest it must be that the prisoners committed to his charge should do as much work as they were competent to execute, and that their labour should be exercised in the manner by which most profit would be produced.

In short, there was every reason to believe that “under a system in which pecuniary advantage is thus made the most prominent object of attention, the experiment of reformation would not be fairly tried.”118

Prisoners would also be provided with masks during chapel services to prevent their being recognised by each other or by members of the public.

Neither Bentham’s various insurance schemes nor his faith in public inspection were considered effective means of ensuring that prisoners were well treated and complaints addressed. On the question of public access to the prison, the committee agreed with Bentham that “curiosity would bring many persons to view a Penitentiary House of so novel a conception”, but reiterated its faith in “persons nominated expressly for the inspection and superintendence of every part of [the] establishment”. Once again, it is emphasised that these should be professionals, “disinterested persons”, invested with the authority necessary to bring the governor to book if required.119 Particular faith in this respect is placed in the chaplain; somebody whose role it is “to endeavour to reconcile the mind of the offender to the lot which he has brought upon himself by his misconduct; […and] on the other to prevent its severity from being aggravated by any hardships or privations which the Law did not intend to impose.”120

Bentham’s original plans for the Panopticon did not even contain a permanent chapel.121 By the time of the Postscripts, however, he had reached the conclusion that “the necessity of a chapel to penitentiary-house, is a point rather to be assumed than argued”; a case, perhaps, as Janet Semple argues, of his having adapted his plans to take on board the dominant religious attitudes of his day.122 Bentham can be seen wrestling here with the problem of integrating a chapel into a circular structure. His solution, evidently the result of discussions with Reveley, was to envisage a permanent pulpit perched on top of the inspector’s lodge. However, for all inmates to be able to see and hear the chaplain, Bentham now accepted that some prisoners would need to leave their cells during divine service. It was also planned that the space between the central tower and the ring of cells could be fitted with seats for the use of the general public. This in turn created new problems, since the Panopticon’s “law of seclusion”, would inevitably be breached, albeit temporarily. Bentham insisted that any risk of communication would be countered by the prison’s apparatus of inspection, with inmates “awed to silence by an invisible eye”.123 Prisoners would also be provided with masks during chapel services to prevent their being recognised by each other or by members of the public. Bentham reasoned that the use of masks in this way would function both to protect the identity of inmates and impress those attracted to the prison to witness this “interesting and affecting” spectacle.124

All this ingenious reflection would come to naught. As far as the members of the Holford committee were concerned, once “liberal remuneration” had been made to its inceptor for “his trouble and ultimate disappointment”, the whole Panopticon saga could be wrapped up speedily and definitively.125

BENTHAM WAS FURIOUS, convinced, as he put it in a private note, that he had been “convicted of an abuse of power and treated accordingly not only without a hearing but before the commission of the offence, pronounced guilty, before he had an opportunity of being so.” In another, he jotted: “Sole object at heart, setting aside Pantopticon, the others but means to that end.”126 He was clearly not prepared to let matters rest, despite being advised by his friends that it would be “inadvisable” and “hopeless” to pursue the issue further.127 In the months following the publication of the report, he launched himself with gusto into the preparation of a detailed account of every twist, turn and meander of the Panopticon contract, and drew up long lists of possible “objections” to the scheme, appending to each the relevant counter-argument.128

It was as if Bentham was preparing ammunition for a counter-attack, and so it proved. A change of personnel at the top of government in May 1812 may have seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. A close ally of Holford’s,129 Richard Ryder, was replaced at the Home Office by Lord Sidmouth, and in June Bentham succeeded in obtaining an interview with the new Secretary of State.130 After one short meeting on the 15th, Bentham seems to have been optimistic that Sidmouth’s “mind was in a state of blank paper on the subject”, and that “no farther step should be taken till the opportunity had been given me of being heard, and that too in black and white.”131 By November, however, Bentham had come to the conclusion that nothing would come of the initiative.132 The final confirmation that all hope for the Panopticon was definitively lost came in a letter from Etienne Dumont the following February. Sidmouth, Dumont wrote, had “spoke[n] with admiration of Mr Bentham” but he “could not hesitate when a committee of the House of Commons was at variance with him.”133 All that remained was to haggle over the “miserable” compensation.134

Bentham would carry that sense of injustice to his grave. A little over a year before his death, in March 1831, he noted that Holford had been “the prime instrument in the business upon which my extinction was decked […] with the prime part of my spoils.”135 However, Holford’s role would not be confined to that of “prime instrument” in the defeat of the Panopticon, for 1811 marked not just the end of one penitentiary project, but the beginning of another. Within five years, what Bentham had disparagingly called the “Non-Panopticon” would be receiving its first consignment of prisoners – and what is more it would be receiving them on the very same site originally earmarked for his own glass lantern. And who would be at the helm of this new penal vessel? None other than Bentham’s nemesis in person.

Neil Davie is Professor of British History at Université Lumière Lyon 2, France. He has published widely in the field of British history, principally on penal policy and criminology in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and has also written on the history of science and women’s history. He is the author of Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860–1918 (Bardwell Press, 2005). ‘Jeremy Betham and  the Panopticon’ is an abridged excerpt from The Penitentiary Ten: The Transformation of the English Prison, 1770–1850 (Bardwell Press, 2016).


  1. The details of these long-drawn-out negotiations have been painstakingly reconstituted in Janet Semple, Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, ch.5-10.
  2. House of Commons Hansard, 1st ser., vol. 17, 5 June 1810, c.352. See also Sir Samuel Romilly, The Speeches of Samuel Romilly, 2 vols., London: James Ridgway & Sons, 1820, vol.1, 262-84.
  3. J. Bentham to R. Wharton, 8 May 1810, repr. in The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, volume 8 (1810-1816), ed. Stephen Conway, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, 67.
  4. William Wilberforce to Jeremy Bentham, 7 May 1810, repr. in ibid., 64.
  5. Journal of the House of Commons, 1810-11, vol. 66, 4 March 1811, 144; 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee on the Laws Relating to Penitentiary Houses (1st Holford Report), May 1811, 3.
  6.   Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham”, in Richard Herr & Harold T. Parker (eds.), Ideas in History: Essays Presented to Louis Gottschalk, Durham: Duke University Press, 1965, 199.
  7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin, 1977 (1975).
  8. In fact, this lifestyle was not untypical for Bentham. See Catherine Pease-Watkin, “Jeremy and Samuel Bentham – The Private and the Public”, Journal of Bentham Studies, vol. 5, 2002, 23-4.
  9. For this remarkable episode, see Ian R. Christie, The Benthams in Russia, 1780-1791, Oxford: Berg, 1993; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Catherine the Great & Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair, London: Phoenix, 2001, ch.20.
  10. F. Rosen, “Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford U.P., Sept. 2004; online edn., May 2007 ( view/article/2153, accessed 11 July 2010); Semple, op.cit., 99-100.
  11. Semple, op.cit., 99-101.
  12. Repr. in Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Bozovic, London: Verso, 1995, 31 (emphasis original).
  13. Robin Evans, The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750-1840, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 198.
  14. Bentham, 1995 (1791), Letters I-V, op.cit., 31-45.
  15. Evans, op.cit., 209
  16. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 34 (Letter I).
  17. Ibid., 35-6 (Letter II).
  18. Ibid., 45 (Letter VI).
  19. Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Punishment, ed. James T. McHugh, Amhurst: Prometheus Books, 2009 (1830), 62.
  20. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. J.H. Burns & H.L.A. Hart, London: Athlone Press, 1970 (1789), 11.
  21. Bentham, op.cit. (1970 (1789), 11.
  22. Philip Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed, London: Continuum, 2009, 45.
  23. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 49 (Letter VII).
  24. Semple, op.cit., 153
  25. UCL Archive, Bentham Mss. 119/82, cited in ibid., 114.
  26. Semple, op.cit., 157-9. Meals would have been staggered to allow the wheels of industry to turn with minimum interference.
  27. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 42 (Letter III); Bentham, Postscript I, Section VIII, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 84, Postscript II, Section III, 70-1 ; Section X, 155-60 ; Section XII, 162.
  28. Ibid., Section IV, 140.
  29. Foucault, op.cit., 200-2.
  30. Leading Bentham scholar Philip Schofield observes astutely that “Foucault is not worried at all about the intentions of Bentham as the author of panopticon (…). What concerns Foucault is to understand the nature of the modern state” (Schofield, op.cit., 70-1). Be that as it may, this does not mean that Foucault’s work “should be exempted from any effort at routine empirical evaluation” (Philip Smith, Punishment and Culture, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 2008, 110).
  31. Ibid., 97.
  32. See Anne Brunon-Gernst (ed.), Beyond Foucault: New Perspectives on Bentham’s Panopticon, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.
  33. Janet Semple, “Foucault and Bentham: A Defence of Panopticism”, Utilitas, vol. IV, n° 1, 1992, 105-20, 105-6, 111.
  34. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 44-5 (Letter V).
  35. Ibid., Letter VI, 47.
  36. Ibid.; Himmelfarb, op.cit., 212.
  37. C. W. Hind, “Reveley, Willey (1760–1799)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford U.P., 2004; online edn., Jan. 2008 (, accessed 12 June 2013); Howard Colvin, Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd edn., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 805-6.
  38. Jeremy Bentham, Proposal for a New and Less Expensive Mode of Employing and Reforming CONVICTS, 1798, repr. in 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., Appendix 3, 99.
  39. Semple, op.cit., 118-20; Philip Steadman, “The Contradictions of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon Penitentiary”, Journal of Bentham Studies, vol. 9, 2007, 7-23.
  40. Semple, op.cit., 119.
  41. Jeremy Bentham, Postscript I, Section XVI, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 93. Bentham describes the exit into the yards as “one of the nicest parts of the anatomy of the prison” (ibid., 92).
  42. Steadman (2007), op.cit., 18.
  43. Bentham, Postscript I, Section VIII, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 80-6. Steadman provides a useful set of architect’s drawings illustrating how this configuration might have worked in practice (2007, op.cit., 8-16).
  44. Jeremy Bentham, A View of the Hard Labour Bill, London: Payne & Son, 1778, ii.
  45. Ibid., 35 ; Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 51 (Letter VIII).
  46. Semple, op.cit., 94.
  47.  ibid.
  48. Bentham lists “age, temper, character, talents and capabilities” as determining the choice (ibid.).
  49. Bentham, Postscript I, Section IV, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 74; Schofield, op.cit., 75.
  50. Gertrude Himmelfarb writes that in general Bentham’s “newly aroused sensibility failed him when it was not sustained by economic advantage” (op.cit., 211-2). This is probably an overly jaundiced view.
  51. Bentham, Postscript II, Section II, repr. Bowring, op.cit., 129.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., 130.
  54. UCL Archive, Bentham Mss. 119/20, quoted in Semple, op.cit., 138.
  55. Bentham, Postscript II, Section II, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 125.
  56. Ibid., 131.
  57. Bentham, op.cit. (2009 (1830)), 279.
  58. Bentham, Postscript II, Section II, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 133.
  59. Ibid., 155.
  60. UCL Archive, Bentham Mss. 119/19, quoted in Semple, op.cit., 155
  61. Bentham, Postscript I, Section IV, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 144.
  62. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 66 (Letter XIII).
  63. Semple, op.cit., 156.
  64. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 66-8 (Letters XIII-XIV).
  65. Ibid., 68 (Letter XIV) (my emphasis).
  66. Bentham, Postscript II, Section I, repr. Bowring, op.cit., 122-5.
  67. Ibid., 164 (Section XIV).
  68. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 71-2 (Letters XV).
  69. Semple, op.cit., 300-1 (my emphasis)
  70. UCL Archive, Bentham Mss. 119/82, quoted in ibid., 154.
  71. Semple notes: “The nature of much of the toil in the panopticon would have been little different from cranks and treadmills that became notorious in nineteenth-century gaols” (ibid., 159). In a later source she quotes (157), Bentham wrote that when it came to criminal labour, “neither dexterity nor good will were to be reckoned upon”.
  72. Ibid., 149; Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 64-5 (Letter XII).
  73. UCL Archive, Bentham Mss. 115/107, quoted in ibid., 151.
  74. Jeremy Bentham, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, vol. IV: 1788-93, ed. A. Taylor Milne. London: Athlone Press, 1981, 342.
  75. Bentham, Postscript II, Section I, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 122.
  76. Tony Draper, “An Introduction to Jeremy Bentham’s Theory of Punishment”, Journal of Bentham Studies, vol. 5, 2002, 7, 16.
  77. Draper, op.cit, 16; McConville, op.cit., 115.
  78. Himmelfarb, op.cit., 235.
  79. Bentham, op.cit. (2009 (1830)), 126.
  80. Ibid., 138-9.
  81. Ibid.; Semple, op.cit., 29.
  82. Bentham, op.cit. (1778), 110-1.
  83. Ibid., 112.
  84. Devon Record Office: 152M/C1812/OH75: Jeremy Bentham to William Pitt, January 23, 1791 (copy).
  85. Semple, op.cit., 102-4, 107-8; Rosen, op.cit.; James Burns, “Bentham, Brissot and the Challenge of Revolution”, History of European Ideas, vol. 35, 2009, 217–226.
  86. Devon R.O., loc.cit.
  87. Devon R.O., loc.cit.
  88. Arthur Burns & Joanna Innes (eds.), Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1830, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, “Introduction”, 13-18.
  89. A possibility suggested in Semple, op.cit., 99.
  90. McConville, op.cit., 110-1; Richard R. Follett, Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and the Politics of Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-30, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001, ch. 2-4.
  91. Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Conway ed., op.cit., “Introduction”, xxiii; Semple, op.cit., 267.
  92. See Semple, op.cit., 233.
  93. George Harrison to Jeremy Bentham, January 4, 1811, repr. Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Conway ed., op.cit., 88-9.
  94. Jeremy Bentham to George Harrison, February 2, 1811, repr. in ibid., 98-107.
  95. Jeremy Bentham to William Wilberforce, February 3, 1811, repr. in ibid., 96.
  96. Jeremy Bentham to Etienne Dumont, June 4-5, 1811, repr. in ibid., 159. Carew, a former Home Office minister and commissioner for auditing public accounts, had been involved with the Panopticon project since the early 1790s, and had proved a staunch ally (Semple, op.cit., 107 & note).
  97. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 41-2.
  98. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 62-82.
  99. Ibid., 62-3. On the complex background to the contract, see Semple, op.cit., ch. 8-10.
  100. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 65.
  101. McConville, op.cit., 123.
  102. See Semple, op.cit., 107-10; Rosen, op.cit.
  103. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 66.
  104. George Holford to Jeremy Bentham, March 27, 1811, repr. in Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Conway ed., op.cit., 110.
  105. Both letters, along with a shorter memo sent on April 4 (reproduced in ibid., 128-9), were subsequently published in the report, much to Bentham’s annoyance.
  106. Jeremy Bentham to George Holford, March 29, 1811, repr. in ibid., 111.
  107. Ibid., 112-6.
  108. Jeremy Bentham to George Holford, April 1st, 1811, repr. in ibid., 119-20.
  109. UCL Archives, Bentham Mss., 118/230.
  110. UCL Archives, Bentham Mss., 118/230-1.
  111. UCL Archives, Bentham Mss., 118/231.
  112. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 74-6.
  113. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 78-9.
  114. Semple, op.cit., 94.
  115. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 4.
  116. Ibid., 10-11.
  117. Ibid., 13.
  118. Ibid., 13-14.
  119. Ibid., 14-15.
  120. Ibid., 14.
  121. Bentham, 1995 (1791), op.cit., 41 (Letter III)
  122. Bentham, Postscript I, Section VII, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 78; Semple, op.cit., 120.
  123. Bentham, Postscript I, Section VII, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 78-80. Steadman (op.cit., 19-20) provides an interesting architectural discussion of the (considerable) problems involved.
  124. Bentham, Postscript I, Section VII, repr. in Bowring, op.cit., 78-9.
  125. 1810-11 (199) Report from the Committee (1st Holford Report), op.cit., 16.
  126. UCL Archives, Bentham Mss. 118/237, 238.
  127. Jeremy Bentham to Lord Folkestone, March 12, 1812, repr. in Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Conway ed., op.cit., 236-7.
  128. UCL Archives, Bentham Mss., 118/240. See also loc.cit., 118/244.
  129. Thorne (op.cit.) quotes a contemporary who describes Holford as an “intimate friend” of Ryder.
  130. Jeremy Bentham to Lord Sidmouth & Lord Sidmouth to Jeremy Bentham, both June 13, 1812, repr. in Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Conway ed., op.cit., 246-7.
  131. Jeremy Bentham to Lord Sidmouth, June 17, 1812, repr. in ibid., 263-80, quotations at 265.
  132. John Bentham to Sir Samuel Romilly, November 27, 1812, repr. in ibid., 288-91.
  133. Etienne Dumont to Jeremy Bentham, February 22, 1813, repr. in ibid., 308.
  134. In October 1823, the matter would finally be settled with a compensation payment to Bentham of £23,779-3s (Semple, op.cit., 281). The epithet quoted comes from Bentham’s letter to Romilly from November 1812 (Conway ed., op.cit., 291).
  135. B.L. Add. Ms. 3350, 413, quoted in Semple, op.cit., 277.

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