Segment from Land of the Free?

America’s Last Panopticon

Inmate Joseph Dole shares a radio essay about America’s last remaining panopticon prison, where inmates are watched by guards 24 hours a day.

Reverse Piano Music by Bobby Cole

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Joann Freeman: As well as losing their liberty of course, people in prison sacrifice their privacy. Today, surveillance cameras monitor inmates’ every move. But long before those cameras were invented, prisons were designed so that guards could keep a perpetual watch on the inmates inside.

Brian Balogh: And that got us thinking about panopticons. Before you google it, let me tell you that these are circular buildings where a single watchman stationed in the center could see every prisoner inside. He can’t see everyone at once, of course, but inmates can’t tell when they’re being observed. So, in theory, they behave as though they’re being watched all the time. The concept was dreamed up by the 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and there are still about half a dozen panopticon prisons in operation, mostly in Europe.

Nathan Connolly: In late 2016, officials in Illinois closed a prison modeled on the panopticon design. It was known as the roundhouse. It was a giant circular building with several hundred cells stacked four stories high, and a large guard tower in the middle. The roundhouse was built nearly a century ago, about 30 miles from Chicago. It was chaotic, cockroach infested, and deafening.

Joseph Dole: It’s akin to walking into a packed Roman Coliseum in the days of gladiators in the height of the action.

Joann Freeman: This is Joseph Dole, an inmate at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, which includes the roundhouse. He says it’s certainly achieved its purpose.

Joseph Dole: hosts would not only have the guards watching them from the tower, but any number of the 200 or so other guys in cells across from them could be looking out of their cells into yours.

Joann Freeman: Dole never served time in the roundhouse, or as inmates called it, the F House. But he knows inmates who did. So he talked to them and asked them what it was like. And here are some of their thoughts.

Joseph Dole: Well I have walked through F House, I was never personally housed there. So, I put this question to two classmates who I know have spent significant periods of time housed there. Raul Dorado who spent many months in that house told me how there’s no natural privacy in the roundhouse. Their cell is completely illuminated. Not only the guards but everyone can see every detail in your cell. It has a psychological detrimental effect on your psyche. It feels like you’re always being watched. Especially during the most vulnerable moments of performing your bodily functions. Some level of privacy can be created by draping a sheet or blanket over the bars encasing the window on the back of the cell to block light coming in, but even then you question it and suspect that everyone can still see you. Moreover, hanging such a sheet is a disciplinary offense. Even if no one can see you, the damage is already done. The idea is inextricably lodged in your subconscious, making you not only your worst critic, but also your own warden.

Joseph Dole: Jamal Bocker similarly informed me that the constant noise also worked to deprive guys of any type of privacy. Doors constantly being kicked, people yelling at the top of their lungs, roaches crawling all over the walls. There was no escaping it. “I often felt confused and unable to focus. I struggled to concentrate on even the smallest task. I couldn’t sleep well at all, and I’d often stay awake just to enjoy a moment of relative quiet during the night, between 12 to 4 am, before the rampage of noise started again.”

Joseph Dole: Young women who are also part of a DePaul University inside outside college course taught in the grounds of Stateville Correctional Center at the dilapidated school building were allowed to tour F House before it closed down. They were visibly shaken afterwards. A few of them were in tears. They related that one of the most disturbing aspects was that the first floor of 60 or so cells, which is where guys who were in disciplinary segregation were held, was just silhouettes of humans. They listened as a number of them kicked on cell doors, while others screamed obscenities or yelled out either in pain, or requesting assistance, or simply for attention. They said it felt like being in a zoo, or insane asylum and then they felt guilty for thinking so, knowing that many of them truly are mentally ill and are often pushed to such behavior by the combination of unconstitutional living conditions, mistreatment by staff, and a denial of adequate mental health treatment.

Brian Balogh: Joseph Dole is currently serving a life without parole sentence at Stateville Correctional Center. A maximum security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois. He’s also the author of A Costly American Hatred.