by Ruth Ainsworth
I was inspired to find about the panopticon part of Lancaster Castle Prison mainly because the panopticon design was created by Jeremy Bentham, whose stuffed corpse sits in the cloisters of my old university.
All I knew about Bentham previously was that he was very progressive: my university was the first in the UK to admit women and Catholics; he is famous for advocating ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I found it strange that he would develop a system that seems so oppressive and claustrophobic. He described it as ‘a mill for grinding rogues honest.’
The word panopticon comes from the Greek meaning ‘all seeing’. The tower on the right of the main gate of the castle houses the panopticon cells, which were completed in 1821, following designs by architect Joseph Gandy, based on Bentham’s idea. The panopticon design was semi circular with cells radiating like sunbeams from a central tower; walls, doors and floors were grilled or meshed – nothing was solid. Prisoners were kept like battery hens. The warders stationed in the tower could observe what was going on in each cell at all times, however the warders themselves could not be seen. This meant that prisoners did not know if they were being watched. In Bentham’s words, this meant that the ‘watched became the watchers’ – making a cheaper prison system and paranoid inmates.
During a tour of the castle in 2012, the assistant manager of the castle, Rachael Jackson, told us the tale the prison warders had passed down: that the threat of constant surveillance drove the first prisoners in the panopticon insane. I wanted to explore the psychological effects of being watched in this way. It also raised questions in my head about how times have changed – less than 200 years have passed since those early prisoners felt crushed by constant surveillance, and now we are watched via CCTV, by search engines, loyalty cards and GPS, and most of us see this as at worst a necessary evil.
I was inspired to research because the castle is such an imposing part of the city with so much rich history. To find that I had a vague personal connection, however distant, through the man who set up my university made it even more interesting to me. I used to write for my job, and the challenge of a different kind of writing, creative non-fiction, was another strong attraction.