Live from the panopticon

August 18, 1993

Not all that goes on inside prison is without hope or redemption. The following is drawn from class discussion in a philosophy course at the Maryland State Penitentiary taught on a volunteer basis by Drew Leder, a professor at Loyola College. The course, open only to prisoners with a high school education, covers topics as diverse as the suffering of Christ, the shamans of Bali and the trial of Socrates.

This discussion of prison architecture and its effect on inmates was recorded last spring. The full transcript appeared in the July/August issue of Lingua Franca, an academic magazine, which gave its permission for these excerpts.

Professor Leder: . . . A British philosopher named Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of a panopticon, a building in which certain individuals can see everything, have absolutely 360-degree vision. And if you look at the picture, you can see that there is a kind of central control tower in the middle where you have a guard or a warden, somebody keeping surveillance, and then surrounding the central tower are the prisoners' cells arrayed in a circle.

Selvyn Tillett (32 years old, serving life plus 20 years): So they don't really know when they're being watched. They have the sense that the guard or the warden may actually be looking in a different direction, but the prisoners don't know for sure when they're being observed.

John Woodland (37, earned a college degree in prison): Even in this prison -- you might not notice this -- but the chief of security's office sits right up here in the corner of the facility. He can sit there and monitor individuals' activity. Who are those two sitting together, and why are they sitting together? And from there he can get on the walkie-talkie: "Check those guys out." Nobody in the yard is aware that this man is at the window and giving instruction.

Donald Thompson (36, will earn a bachelor's degree this fall; serving life for murder and armed robbery): I was also thinking about the visiting booth. That's like a panopticon. Not only is it structured like a panopticon, but it has three or four mirrors in it that the officers sit behind. So when I go in there for a visit, I'm very self-conscious. . .

When I first came here, I was very violent. It didn't take much for me to strike another person -- with a baseball bat, a brick, a gun. Since I've been here I've had one fight. I haven't been that violent. I think the effect of knowing that I'm being watched and that somebody's going to tell has acted in a way to make me control that violence. . . As time went on, it became a kind of discipline. It helped me discipline myself. My intellect eventually kicked in.

Woodland: It becomes your third eye. You become very crafty. . . Being observed like this can enhance your ability to observe. Most of us who came to prison didn't know how to observe people the way we do now.

Mark Medley (39, serving two life sentences without parole for murder; died a week ago last Sunday of an apparent stroke): In a total panopticon environment, where you're virtually under 24-hour surveillance, like at the new prison they've built in Jessup, one way a man can resist the reforming idea of this system -- the sort of feedback where the panopticon simulates the person's consciousness -- is with autistic thinking, or total absorption in fantasy for an extended period of time.

A person can just absorb themselves in creating a fantasy, can say, "I'm building an island, and this is what my island will look like, and this is what my water source will be, and these are the kinds of plant or fruits I'll have on my island."

It's like a resting period for the mind, almost like sleep.

H. B. Johnson (46, poet and playwright; dying from AIDS; serving a 35-year term for attempted murder and illegal possession of a handgun): When we drive by a church, we may not think about it, but it dwarfs us. Drive by a prison and it's the same thing, plus a sense of fear, apprehension, revulsion -- even, with some people, shame -- and submission to a power outside of yourself. . .

I think the way to escape is by living the kind of life where you feel that you don't have anything to hide. You don't care whether the state's looking at you or not -- you've done nothing wrong.

Leder: I do hear a lot of people say that if you're not doing anything wrong, at least according to the institution and according to yourself, you can relax. They can't get anything out of you, and in a way you have certain power because they can't get a hold of you. . .

There are certain values, like getting off drugs or not behaving violently, that you can internalize in a positive sense as a part of your own self-discipline. But there are other values that I'm hearing are negative because they are turning humans into something machinelike.

Woodland: One thing I noticed when I first came here is that the penitentiary design is similar to the high-rise projects in West Baltimore or East Baltimore. In prison it's the tiers, in the projects it's the different floors. You have this limited space between a fence and where you live, and the room that you live in is also kind of confined . . .

In prison, the cell is not really big enough for one person, but they put two in there. Same thing with projects; they're not big enough for entire families, but they put entire families in there.

Medley: It's just that they have to liquidate their inventory as a matter of storage space.

Several voices: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

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