Thursday 21 November 2019

'Open' jail horror – where the guards can see you all the time

Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Panopticon: a jail where the guards can see you all the time, you can see them all the time, there is light around the clock, prisoners are kept separate and in silence, and the roof is glass so you know that God is watching – and judging.

Sounds like something from a science-fiction movie, or some hellish future imagined by Aldous Huxley or Yevgeny Zamyatin. The concept actually dates from 1789; a few weeks after Bastille Day, which is why Paul Thornton examined it in his fantastic Sunday Miscellany (Radio 1) essay.

The Panopticon was devised by Englishman Jeremy Bentham, after a visit to Russia and after the release of Bastille prisoners (among them an Irish "lunatic").

His idea was simple, and chilling: a jail where the inmates were in no doubt that they were being watched, all the time. Advocates of Bentham's ideas claimed it would help prisoners to reflect and repent, but as Paul explained, this was all about surveillance and control.

Weirdly enough, Bentham's brainchild was later revitalised in Ireland: the east wing built for Kilmainham Gaol in 1962 was heavily influenced by the Panopticon, with guards having a 270-degree view of inmates.

But you don't have to be some delusional "oh the poor little lambs are just misunderstood" eejit to consider the Panopticon as a horrible notion. It's almost physically oppressive to think about. The awareness that you are under observation, 24-7, with never a break nor a bit of privacy, is unbearable to an Orwellian degree.

Over on Newstalk there was a very promising start to Talking Books, although on a side-note, I think I'm officially all Kevin Barry-ed out. It's not his fault; I know that. I'm being unfair; I know that too.

But there you have it, human nature: we can't help getting sick of hearing someone talking about the same things, or reading about them all the time. Anyway, enough of that: Sue Cahill (a top documentarian also) made a good start to her new career as host, with slots on West Cork Literary Festival, a biography of Leonard Cohen and a reading from Colum McCann.

And it's great to see more dedicated books programming. A very welcome addition to the weekend schedules.

Irish Independent

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