Much of my university study has slipped away, if not out of mind completely, then into its deeper recesses, but Jeremy Bentham’s work somehow defied the status quo and stuck. The panopticon and its modern day applications – ubiquitous CCTV, neighbourhood watch, social media – are all not hidden in plain sight.
The panopticon prison was an idea I came back to again and again during the choking, immensely weighty years of my mother’s time in a secure dementia unit. She was under watch but cared for, locked in but free to roam, feverishly but lumberingly wandering up and down, up and down. Nurses on sentry in their stations did the observing, and, occasionally, the ignoring. I still can’t believe I did that to her.
So, my university lectures mostly feel a long way from the foaming inlets and speckled swamps of Byron Shire. Its roads and its pubs, where constant surveillance is the modus operandi, less so. But what I hadn’t realised is Bentham’s involvement with NSW’s white settler story.
Not only did he find problems in the British colonial approach from the outset (he favoured his own prison design over transportation, arguing to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1798 that it was financially beneficial to the Crown), but he argued the colony had no legal basis, and was, he wrote in A Plea for the Constitution, a “Colossus mounted upon a straw.“
As I learnt from Northern Rivers author Julianne Schultz in her uncannily timely The Idea of Australia, he “considered the failure to come to a legal agreement with traditional owners a flaw and predicted it would be ‘incurable’.” His plea and warnings, by the way, were written in 1803. 1803, the year Australia was proved to be an island.
Schultz’s book is timely in many ways (it’s answering so much I’ve questioned, for example, here and here), but also because a recent story I wrote for SBS Voices about the series The Australian Wars won’t slip from my mind. I keep coming back to a quote from Dr Henry Reynolds, with whom I chatted for the story in Munich via Zoom from his home in Tasmania. We talked about the 100 years of bloody wars that formed the shaky foundations for the states and territories of Australia and how so much of that history has been white-washed, forgotten.
Indigenous people were more or less redacted from the story and by the early 20th Century became little more than a footnote in history books. Leaving out First Nations peoples meant, he said, “you left out the violence.”
“To treat Aboriginals as worthy foes would have created a different situation … It would have meant that fundamentally there was that respect for the people who were resisting,” Professor Reynolds told me.
Even as the land’s ancestral people were seen as important enough to fight, they were not seen as human enough to respect. The panopticon was very, very far from those battle grounds.
And, today, as First Nations people make up the largest prison population by far, and are the most surveilled of all Australians, no matter whether incarcerated or walking in Sydney’s CBD, that word ‘incurable’ feels hard to ignore.
I’ve just interviewed a man who helped build the Clarence Correctional Centre, a state-of-the-art prison in the Northern Rivers, and I learnt that it features a stone circle as a place to come together and sit. I presume. Rock and stone circles have for many millennia been part of indigenous cultures around the world, and are a part of Australian Aboriginal rituals and Dreamtime histories. Bora rings are places of initiation, Victoria’s Wurdi Youang rock formation, egg-shaped and in line with seasonal equinoxes, is possibly the world’s oldest astronomical observatory.
There is no getting away from the past. Its arrow is boundless. Today’s prisons borrow from ancient culture while, of course, filling their cells with its people – and Bentham is often long forgotten, although not by me.