Bentham in Brooklyn: “You may call it a Glass Doughnut, sir, I call it a Panopticon!”

by | Apr 6, 2008


Utilitarian philosopher (and celebrity corpse) Jeremy Bentham famously proposed a “Panopticon” design for a prison: a circular building, with the warder sat at its center able to see all the inmates in their cells around him at all times. The warder would have to be hidden behind Venetian blinds to conceal who he was looking at, but all would fear surveillance:

The more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.

What Bentham did not consider, however, was whether “ideal perfection” might be achieved by placing the jail inside an all-glass apartment building in downtown Brooklyn, New York, replete with retail areas. Well civilization has advanced since Bentham’s day, and the current edition of the The Brooklyn Paper (“Brooklyn’s Real Newspaper”) reports on exciting new ideas to renovate the Brooklyn House of Detention, a remarkably ugly building that has been out of use since 2003:

The Department of Design and Construction will pay a developer $240 million to enlarge the currently closed, 11-story, 759-inmate prison into one that holds 1,469 troubled souls, plus boasts ground-floor retail on bustling Atlantic Avenue.

The latest request for proposals is a far cry from the city’s effort last year, when it asked developers to integrate residential housing and retail into the complex. Such a request brought little interest — though Common Ground Council, Hamlin Ventures and Time Equities created a fanciful idea that included luxury housing and open space in a glass-walled doughnut around the jail.

That proposal went nowhere because it called for demolishing the existing jail and replacing it with a smaller detention center — a vision that doesn’t mesh with the city plan for expanding the jail, said Department of Correction spokesperson Steven Morello. Another contentious proposal called for a public middle school on the premises. That idea was scotched within minutes after it was floated at a January meeting.

While pondering how they let this genius proposal hit the rocks, NYC pols should surely leap on an ultra-Benthamite plan: build an all-glass jail inside an all-glass apartment building (with all-glass Starbucks, Burger King and Gap in retail zone) meaning that the prisoners can be constantly observed by the honest citizens around them… while they in turn are observed from the street by more-or-less honest passers-by! It’s not too late, for The Brooklyn Paper concludes:

Developers interested in expanding the jail should submit proposals to the Department of Correction by April 11.

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