Bentham’s Panopticon. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Those that (still) watch True Blood, HBO’s vampire drama will be familiar with the latest location, “Vamp Camp,” a veritable prison and research facility the humans of Louisiana built. Though critics have criticized the show’s blatant reference to Nazi concentration camps, the inspiration for the architecture of Vamp Camp actually comes from 18th-century prison design theory.
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was a circular prison designed so that the guards could observe prisoners unseen. According to urban design theorist Graham Shane, author of Recombinant Urbanism, “the ‘eye of power,’ the hidden jailer of the Panopticon, sat in a central, dark tower like a hidden god.”
About the social theory of the prison, Shane writes, “Everything was classified and in order, demonstrating the principles of a new life-world based on segregation, separation, inspection, transparency, and distance communication…This mechanism’s express aim was to make prisoners internalize the hidden jailer so that they would return to society reformed.” Isolation was another key tenet of the Panopticon, with “the hope that rigid rules of sorting and sequencing would become ingrained in the inmate’s psyche reforming his values and work habits.”
According to True Blood art director Cat Smith, in the short extra “Inside Vamp Camp,” the idea behind the Panopticon was so “the guards could look out in any direction and you didn’t know where they were looking so you always had a feeling they were looking at you.” Most interestingly, Shane sees Bentham’s rationalist approach applied to 19th-century utopian designs for new industrial communities as well. These theories were not isolated to those on the margins of society.
A key difference between Bentham’s theory and its application on True Blood is that Bentham’s ideas were actual reforms in the prison system that improved inmate living conditions, compared to the existing alternative in medieval dungeons.
All of this is timely given the current exhibition at the California Museum of Geography called “Geographies of Detention,” looking at prison landscapes in Guantanamo Bay and more, along with the recent book Corrections and Collections by Joe Day comparing the proliferation of prisons and museums in America.
In the New York City area, the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, NJ has some design elements similar to the Panopticon. The guard tower is encased in glass, looking down at the inmates below. Many of New York City’s prisons are located within the urban fabric, as seen in this round-up of “The Prisons Among Us.” Also check out our visit inside the infamous Riker’s Island in New York City.