The Countess P's prison combines two concepts for the reform of offenders; the panopticon and the separate system.
The panopticon (from Latin, all-observing) was a style of prison designed by English reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1785, with the intention that prisoners would feel continually under observation. Bentham devoted a great deal of energy to creating a physical panopticon in England, but the project eventually failed when King George III refused to release land for the development. However, many modern prisons are now built in a 'podular' design, giving officers a view into cells built on several tiers around 180 degrees in a triangular or trapezoid structure.
In 1975, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote of the panopticon, "Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen." (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison)
The separate system, meanwhile, is another Bentham design for prisons aimed at reducing interaction, identity, and the development of gangs or prison subcultures. Introduced in the early 19th century in Pennsylvania, USA, the buildings consist of a central hub with radiating 'spokes' of cells; each section may be seen from the centre but not each individual cell. The spaces in between form exercise yards - originally, these too were separated into tiny, one person exercise spaces observed by a central guard; elsewhere, prisoners were made to wear masks during exercise to reduce interaction. Prisoners were known by number and made to wear felted shoes to prevent noise. Pentonville prison in London, opened in 1842 followed this design. However, many prisoners went mad under the system, even with Bibles and chaplain visits; between 1842 and 1850, 55 prisoners in Pentonville went mad, 26 had nervous breakdowns and three committed suicide. The system died out in the late nineteenth century as it was considered cruel.