Presidio Modelo in Cuba and the panopticon idea


The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience“. There has been so many books and essays that are focused on the panopticon, not only as an architectural form and type, but deeper, in the way that it acts to obtain power “of mind over mind“, as Bentham quotes.

Taken from a serie of letters written in 1787 by Jeremy Bentham:

The general ideas of it are: The building is circular, the apartments of the prisoners occupy the circumference. You may call them, if you please, the cells and these cells are divided from one another, and the prisoners by that means secluded from all communication with each other, by partitions in the form of radii issuing from the circumference towards the centre, and extending as many feet as shall be thought necessary to form the largest dimension of the cell […] Though perhaps it is the most important point is that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so, yet it is not by any means the only one.


Taking a look at the wiki entry for Panopticon, we found references to Presidio Modelo in Cuba and get curious about the site. We found some more info to share in a blog [in Spanish] called exactly Presidio Modelo (we suposse is an un-official site) but it’s interesting to note that there is so many info, that we want to sumarize the most important points about how architecture is used to produce fear, not only in the mind of a philosopher of the lates 1700s but in the current times.

Presidio Modelo is located in the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba, the second-largest Cuban island. The prison was built under the dictator Gerardo Machado in the period 1926–1931, and held 6000 prisoners, even Cuban leader Fidel Castro was imprisoned in the Presidio Modelo from 1953 to 1955 by the regime of Fulgencio Batista. The “Model Prison” was built in 1926 by its future inmates as an exact copy of the equally notorious Joliet Prison in the US. At one time, it was considered the definitive example of efficient design, as up to six thousand prisoners could be controlled with a minimum of staff, but it soon became infamous for unprecedented levels of corruption and cruelty.

Prison Presidio Modelo - Cuba 3

It was designed exactly following Bentham ideas, that includes the circular shape to have a vacant space or area all round, between such centre and such circumference. It may be called the intermediate or annular area, the partitions carried on a few feet beyond the grating into the intermediate area: such projecting parts called the protracted partitions [To cut off from each prisoner the view of every other] and so on until we get to “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector (if divines will allow me the expression,) combined with the extreme facility of his real presence. “

3- circulares exterior

8- cubiculos de circulares

The design incorporates a tower central to a circular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen. Toward this end, Bentham envisioned not only venetian blinds on the tower observation ports but also maze-like connections among tower rooms to avoid glints of light or noise that might betray the presence of an observer

Ben and Marthalee Barton

Prison Presidio Modelo - Cuba

The last prisoner from Presidio Modelo was released in 1967 and now the old building serves as a museum and is declared a National Monument. Presidio Modelo doesn’t exists anymore as a prison, but what happens with sites like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib et al, where fear is used to control and prisoners are incommunicated and abused. Maybe the shape is not circular any more, but the ends are the same as 200 years ago: Architecture to be oppressive – the architecture of fear.

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