Architectural Determinism and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon


In the history of the penitentiary in the United States, architectural trends are highly representative of the developing penal ideologies in society and government. Beginning with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon model, a series of architectural systems developed using different designs in an attempt to control inmates and force them to behave in particular patterns. The belief that architecture can influence behavior is known as “architectural determinism.” Consequent penitentiary systems retained certain aspects of Bentham’s design and its underlying philosophies: visibility of the inmates, separation of the inmates, and silence of the inmates.


Figure 1. Jeremy Bentham

Architectural Determinism and Creation of the “Other”

Architectural determinism is a theory that states that the physical structure of a building influences the behavior of those persons who live or work within the entity. The origins of this theory lie with Jeremy Bentham and the concept of a ‘Panopticon’, an architectural structure designed to maximize efficiency and compliance of those placed inside.[i] In the penitentiary system, architectural determinism affected both inmates within the penitentiaries and the communities in which the penitentiaries were built. With the creation of the penitentiary in the 1780s came the creation of ‘the other’: the criminals became a class of their own, marked as separate and dangerous than the rest of the community.

The first appearance of the ‘criminal class’ came in Pennsylvania when the Act of 1786 required that criminals be punished publically with hard labor. After this act was passed criminals were given distinctive clothes and were forced to perform hard labor on the streets so that the citizens of the commonwealth could watch.[ii] Social backlash, led by the Society of Friends, forced prisoner punishments behind closed doors; consequently, when John Haviland built the Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1820s in Philadelphia, he designed the building to control not just the inmates, but also the free citizens of the city. Inside the prison, cells were separated and built to hold each prisoner in solitary confinement, thus limiting social interaction and forcing introspection; the façade of the building, reflecting an intimidating Gothic structure, inspired fear in the free citizens, discouraging potential criminal behavior.[iii]


Jeremy Bentham and the Panopticon

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher and social reformer born in the late 1740s. Bentham’s life was devoted to the study of human behavior, and he was especially interested in the study of social control and power dynamics.  Penology was never the primary focus of Bentham’s work; in fact, his true passion was studying and expanding on the philosophy of utilitarianism as an ethical principle.[iv] Nevertheless, many of Bentham’s philosophies can be applied to the study of criminology; the best example of this is the application of Bentham’s Panopticon building as a penitentiary.


Figure 2. Plan of a Panopticon by Bentham

According to Bentham, the Panopticon is a structure that can function in multiple situations: as a school, a hospital, a factory, and more. The design of the Panopticon is a circular structure around a tower; cells line the circumference of the outer building, with each cell separated from all others. Every cell is in full view of the central tower, and every cell has plain view of the central tower. Within the central tower resides an observing authoritative figure, while within the cells reside students, patients, workers, or prisoners. The cells themselves have windows on the outside, and grated doors on the inside, facing the central tower. The windows are large and let in enough light so as to always make the resident of the cell clearly visible to the authority in the tower, and allow the resident of the cell to be aware of the central tower. The cells are separated from one another so as to prevent residents of the cells from collaborating.[v]


Figure 3. Panopticon model

The Panopticon, as applied as a penitentiary, was meant to be a structure of certainty that used surveillance of the prisoner as a trap; the open windows and lights, as well as the parallel structure of the visibility of and from the central observation tower made the prisoner feel as though they had no privacy; that is, they were always being watched. The central tower, while always maintaining an unobstructed view of the prisoners, itself possessed blinds. These blinds could be adjusted in order to continue observation of the prisoners, while preventing prisoner view of the observing figure inside the tower.[vi]  This system theoretically assured that prisoners in the cells would always behave themselves, because they would believe they were always being watched. By extension they were always at risk of censure by the director of the Panopticon. To prevent this censure, the prisoners would feel compelled to always act according to the rules set in place by the director.  Eventually this acceptable behavior would become routine for the prisoners: the ultimate success of the Panopticon as seen through the operation of architectural determinism.


Figure 4. Panopticon

Imitators of Bentham

A series of architectural trends emerged that borrowed from Bentham’s underlying philosophies: three of these trends were the Radial System, the Pennsylvania System, and the Auburn system. The Radial system was developed by William Blackburn in England in the 1790s, at the same time Bentham was developing his Panopticon model. A Radial System penitentiary was made up of a central building which housed administration, and a series of cell blocks radiating out from that building.[vii] The Radial System, like the Panopticon model, valued the idea of strategically placing the directors and administration of the penitentiaries where they would be able to see all of the inmates, while the inmates themselves would not be able to see the administration.

The Pennsylvania System followed the Radial System when in the early 1820s John Haviland constructed the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The Eastern State Penitentiary followed the radial tradition, with a central administrative building and a series of cellblocks stretching out from it. Haviland’s addition to penitentiary architecture was the innovation of keeping all of the inmates in solitary confinement. The cellblocks at Eastern State Penitentiary were designed to hold one inmate each, and every cellblock had its own exercise yard; this way, the inmates would never leave their cells for the duration of their incarceration. The Pennsylvania System marked an era of architectural design in which held solitude as the highest priority; this trend was the result of Quaker influence in penitentiary development in Pennsylvania.[viii]

The Pennsylvania System was not adopted in the other areas of the United States, which opted to build penitentiaries in the model of the Auburn System. The Auburn System was born in 1817 with the construction of Auburn Penitentiary in New York. Also known as the “Congregate System”, the Auburn System continued the trend of keeping prisoners in silence; however, it rejected the Pennsylvania System’s emphasis on keeping prisoners in solitude. Rather, prisoners were herded together and forced to perform labor in silence; for about the first decade of the penitentiary the prisoners themselves were building the facility of their incarceration.[ix]

-Casey Robinson


[i] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 198

[ii] DePuy, Leroy B. “The Walnut Street Prison: Pennsylvania’s First Penitentiary.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 18, no.2 (1951): 133

[iii] Johnston, Norman B. “Pioneers in Criminology. V. John Haviland (1792-1852).” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 45, no. 5 (1955): 514, 518

[iv] Geis, Gilbert. “Pioneers in Criminiology. VII. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 46, no. 2 (1955): 162-163

[v] Foucault. Discipline and Punish. 202, 205-208

[vi] Foucault. Discipline and Punish. 200

[vii] Johnston. “Pioneers in Criminology.”: 513

[viii] W. David Lewis From Newgate to Dannemora New York: 32

[ix] Johnston, Forms of Constraint. 76


Fig. 1.Pickersgill, Henry William. Jeremy Bentham. 1875. National Portrait Gallery. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 2. Reveley, Willey. Plan of the Panopticon, 1791. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 3. Panopticon Schematic. 1971. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig 4. Foucault, Michel. “Dicipline and Panish, Panopticism.” In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, edited by Alan Sheridan, 195-228. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.