Forgotten structures (pt. 4) — Presidio Modelo

The ruins of the ‘Presidio Modelo’ in Cuba

Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasureRumi

This week, we look at the Presidio Modelo in Cuba. Built between 1926 and 1928, the model prison was built under the regime of president-turned-dictator Gerardo Machado. Containing five separate cell-block structures, the prison followed Jeremy Bentham’s infamous panopticon design — where inmates’ cells surrounded an ominous central watchtower. Originally designed to hold around 2,500 prisoners, the Presidio Modelo’s population quickly grew to more than 6,000 following the fall of Machado.

Housing a range of political dissidents — including future prime minister and president Fidel Castro and his brother Raul— Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and any other “enemies” to the dictator, the prison would become a key component of Cuba’s twentieth century history. After riots became frequent during 1961, principally due to the staggering overcrowding of the cells, the Presidio Modelo was permanently closed in 1966. Today, the buildings remain open as a museum and national monument, providing an intriguing example of how the notorious panopticon concept operated — and ultimately failed — in reality. The following provides some historical context for the site, an overview of the practical components of the panopticon design and explores the philosophical relevance of the Bentham’s ‘model prison’.

Presidio Modelo’s cell blocks from outside

Built on Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud), the Presidio Modelo is located in the suburban quarter of Chacón, Nueva Gerona. The area was once home to José Martí — the much adored poet and martyr, who became the symbol of Cuba’s struggle for independence — after national authorities commuted his forced labor imprisonment penalty. Ironically, the prison itself was built by many of its future inmates and developed as an exact copy of the Joliet Correctional Centre — made famous by the Blue Brothers film — in Illinois, US. At the time of construction, Presidio Modelo was considered the definitive example of efficient design, where the panopticon model allowed thousands of prisoners to be controlled by a minimum number of staff.

Bentham’s original conceptual drawings of the panopticon

Literally translating to “all-seeing”, English social-theorist Bentham presented the panopticon in the late 18th century as a system of control for institutional buildings. The scheme of the model was to allow all (pan-) inmates to be observed (-opticon) by a limited number of watchmen. The name also appears to allude to the Greek mythological figure of Panoptes, who’s eyes famously never rested. Each cell extends the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus back-lit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually. Key to the panopticon’s design is the fact that inmates are unable to fully understand whether or not their every move is being surveilled by guards.

An inmate’s perspective of life in a panopticon prison

In reality, of course, it is physically impossible for one or two watchman to observe hundreds of cells at once. However, as inmates cannot know for sure when they are being watched, they are internally motivated to act as though they are being monitored at all times. Thus, they are effectively compelled to regulate their own behavior, under the assumption that they are under constant surveillance. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only Venetian blinds on the tower observation ports, but, also, maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer.

“Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffuse, 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” — Jeremy Bentham, ‘The Panopticon Writings’

As time progressed, Bentham’s concept began to prompt considerable discussion and debate. Whereas Bentham himself regarded the panopticon as “a rational, enlightened and just” solution to societal problems, his ideas were repeatedly criticised for their reductive, mechanistic and inhumane approach. Notably, in 1841, Augustus Pugin published the second edition of his work Contrasts. Here, Pugin examines a ‘Modern Poor House’ (evidently modeled on the Panopticon), which is presented as a bleak and comfortless structure, in which the pauper is separated from his family, subjected to a harsh discipline and fed on a minimal diet. Effectively, Pugin’s model was an attempt to critique and question the morality of the panopticon concept.

Augustus Pugin’s ‘Modern Poor House’

Perhaps most influentially, however, the idea of the panopticon was invoked by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Particularly in his work on Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for modern ‘disciplinary’ societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. In this sense, the panopticon operates as a power mechanism. As Foucault discussed, “on the whole … one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine’, to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of panopticism” (1975, p. 195).

For Foucault, the panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where bars, chains and heavy locks are no longer necessary for domination. Instead, the mere threat of surveillance is what disciplines society into behaving according to rules and norms. Foucault’s argument is that modern discipline changed from enforcing authority physically, to doing so psychologically . The result of this is an acceptance of regulations and docility — a normalization of sorts — stemming from the threat of discipline. Suitable behaviour is achieved not through total surveillance, but by ‘panoptic’ discipline and inducing a population to conform by the internalization of this reality. Foucault highlights how the real danger is not necessarily that individuals are repressed by the social order, rather that they are carefully fabricated in it.

“He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication”
— Foucault

Foucault in protest

The notoriety of the panopticon design today (although not its lasting influence in architectural realities) stems from Foucault’s influential analysis of it. Building on his work, contemporary social critics have often asserted that technology has allowed for the further deployment of invisible panoptic structures throughout society. Surveillance by CCTV cameras in public spaces is an example of a technology that brings the gaze of a superior into the daily lives of the populace. Likewise, the same can be said of the internet, where almost all action can be tracked, recorded and monitored. In turn, influencing how the service is used.

While Presidio Modelo sits as one of the lasting physical references to the panopticon design, as discussed, it is the idea of panoptic social structures which has garnered more attention and intrigue. The work of Foucault to use Bentham’s model as a metaphor of surveillance has gone a long way to expanding the critical consciousness of individuals, who begin to understand how there is a continuous and covert penetration of power into their daily lives and behaviour. In turn, rather than wilting under such realisation of domination, a critical mindset can use this awareness to make significant strides towards emancipation and freedom from oppression as a result.

Research assistant at Queen's University Belfast