Arts & Entertainment

Latin America’s old panopticon prisons reborn as cultural venues

By Claudia Polanco Yermanos

Americas Desk, Apr 30 (EFE).- Latin American penitentiaries built on the panopticon plan – allowing a single guard to observe all inmates – were abandoned decades ago as part of prison reform, but many have found a new lease on life as cultural venues.

The concept, put forward in 1791 by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, took hold in the young United States, which built the first panopticon: Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Construction began in 1821 and the building would house many high-profile criminals, including notorious mob boss Al Capone, before closing in 1971.

In its time the largest and most expensive public structure in the US, the penitentiary became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.

The first panopticon in Latin America was the House of Correction in Rio de Janeiro, where work began in 1834. Chile, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Cuba would follow suit By the late 19th century, the panopticon approach was starting to fall out of favor amid high operating costs and the explosive growth of cities.

“It made no sense to have a prison, synonymous with crime and violence, and where there was constant tension, in the middle of the city,” anthropologist German Ferro Medina told Efe.

Since the last inmate left more than 50 years ago, the Eastern State Penitentiary has been transformed into a historic site that offers tours of the crumbling cell blocks.

Escobedo, a panopticon prison in Guadalajara, Mexico, was demolished in 1933, but Bogota’s Central Penitentiary of Cundinamarca was more fortunate.

In 1946, the huge stone fortress began a new phase as the permanent home of the National Museum of Colombia.

“The design of this detention center was entrusted to the Danish architect Thomas Reed and occurred during the liberal reforms of the mid-19th century, among them the modernization of the penal and prison system, which meant that prisons were not just for punishment but also for reform,” the museum’s curator, Maria Paola Rodriguez, told Efe.

“Changing the meaning and use of a prison and assigning it a new cultural function was an innovative element in Latin America which paved the way for other panopticons to experience the same transformation,” she said.

The list of famous inmates at another Mexican panopticon, Palacio de Lecumberri, between 1900 and 1976 included revolutionary Pancho Villa, artist and militant David Alfaro Siqueiros, writer Jose Revueltas, and leaders of the 1968 student movement.

On Aug. 27, 1982 it became the headquarters of the General Archive of the Nation.

Cuba’s panopticon-style Modelo Prison on the Isle of Youth was built in the 1920s to a design inspired by the Joliet Correctional Center, near Chicago.

The 34 buildings could hold some 4,000 inmates. The leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, spent two years locked up at Modelo after leading the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks.

The facility ceased to be a prison in the 1960s and today houses a museum, an elementary school and the headquarters of the Young Communist League.

Something similar happened to the former prison in Valparaiso, Chile, which since 2011 has been a highly regarded center for performing arts.

During the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Valparaiso penitentiary became the main detention and torture center for political prisoners in the region.

Located in the heart of Quito, Garcia Moreno prison is awaiting final approval from Ecuador’s government to be transformed into a Museum of Memory, in compliance with a finding by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

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