Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Mother of All Private Prisons

There's some heated debate over at DPF on comments by Corrections Minister Paul Swain, ruling out private companies being contracted to run prisons.

For the record, I agree with David and others on the right that there is no reason private companies shouldn't run prisons for profit given adequate quality monitoring (though I doubt that would be any harder than for a state-run prison). Profit-seeking firms have a motive to do things efficiently and don't suffer the same degree of moral hazard an organisation as large as the Government does.

But my real reason for the post is to point out a fascinating historical example of a proposed private prison, the Panopticon (yes, the blog name is inspired by it) of the Utilitarian Philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).




















(image lifted from Wikipedia)



The Panopticon was designed such that guards could watch prisoners without prisoners being able to tell they are being watched. Since at any moment the prisoners could be being watched, they will, according to Bentham, behave themselves at all times with minimal guards required.

In addition, there would be a governor (Bentham wanted to do this himself) appointed by tender, to oversee the guards. The Guards would in turn watch the governor and the whole thing would also be open to the public to come in and have a wander around. This open structure would ensure that everyone would be on their best behaviour and do their jobs properly.


Bentham anticipated many of the techniques of Scientific Management, detailing the prison design right down to the position of the governor's toilet so he would have to look at the prisoners at least once a day.

Being the Utilitarian he was (although that's a bit like calling Martin Luther a Reformist), he didn't believe in punishment for it's own sake and thought the primary aim of prison should be rehabilitation. This would take the form of labour, which would teach the prisoners discipline. He conceded they needed exercise, but rather than waste all that energy walking, he thought they would be better off running in a giant hamster-wheel to power various stone-working and corn-milling machines of Bentham's (along with his brother Samuel) design. The governor would keep any profits from the labour, which would bring down the tenders, with the possibility that the governor may actually pay the Government for the privilege of running it.

Prisoners would be looked after by giving the governor a financial incentive to keep them alive. The governor would be given some amount of money each year and have to pay back 100 pounds for each one that dies.

The prison was very nearly built in Britain, but ultimately didn't happen.

Should you want to know more, I recommend the excellent book by Janet Semple, Bentham's Prison - A Study of The Panopticon Penitentiary (1993), which includes details of the structure, Bentham's thought and the political dealings involved.


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