University College London and a jail in Calcutta

I FIRST MET THE GIRL who is now my wife at University College London (‘UC’). The college was founded in 1826 for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women. Its principal founder was the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). His mummified body is on display in one the college’s buildings.

Several thousand miles from UC in the city of Kolkata is the now disused Alipore Jail, which was opened in 1864. It was within its walls that many Indian freedom fighters were interred and some executed, by the British when they were ruling India.

Today, the prison has been highly restored and is open to the public as a museum. Here one can see the cells in which, for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sri Aurobindo, and Subhas Chandra Bose, were incarcerated. Visitors flock to se the gallows and the autopsy room nearby. Other attractions include the prison hospital and the centrally located ‘watch tower’. As one explores the vast prison, the air is filled with patriotic songs, including “Vande Mataram” blasting out of loudspeakers.

The watch tower is an octagonal building with windows on each of its eight sides. It is an example of a panopticon, a structure invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1787. The panopticon was an institutional structure from which guards (of a prison or a mental asylum) could survey the whole institution. It was to be positioned so that the inmates/prisoners could all see the panopticon. It was designed so that the custodians could look out but the inmates could not see within it. Bentham’s idea was that if the inmates could not see into it, they could not know whether or not they were being watched. Thus, as few as one custodian could keep an eye on the whole institution and the inmates had to behave all the time as they had no idea whether they were under observation. I suppose the system worked because panopticons were constructed in many prisons including that at Alipore.

The panopticon was invented long before cctv and traffic speed cameras were even thought of. Like the panopticon, from which inmates could never be sure that they were not being observed, cctv and speed cameras can employ the ‘panopticon effect’. As you can never tell whether a cctv camera or a speed camera is switched on, when you spot one, it is wise not to do anything wrong, which can be detected by these devices.

When we visited the former prison, now museum, we had no idea that it had a connection with our alma mater, UC. Information panels on the walk of the watch tower include a portrait of Jeremy Bentham alongside some information about his invention. A visit to the jail is worthwhile but do not go on a Saturday afternoon when it is swarming with visitors. It is ironic that the sturdy bolts of the doors of the cells have to be kept locked, not to keep the inmates confined but to prevent the eager visitors from entering them.