Ryan Edwards – The Open-Door Panopticon: Exploring Prison and Place in Southern Patagonia, 1902-1947


Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Ryan Edwards (Cornell University) – The Open-Door Panopticon: Exploring Prison and Place in Southern Patagonia, 1902-1947

I investigate Argentina’s Ushuaia penal colony (1902-1947), located on the Beagle Channel, to explore how modern penitentiaries are intimately connected to and interactive in their geographic environments. This account adds spatial nuance to Michel Foucault’s ground-breaking study of the panopticon, taking seriously his response in “Questions of Geography,” to show that modern penitentiaries have rarely been so enclosed and, moreover, were not always meant to be. Through the confluence of social and environmental history, Ushuaia illuminates state-formation and an intellectual history of prison design in Latin America.

Inaugural director and engineer Catello Muratgia published treatises on European and American prison systems, contextualizing Ushuaia as an “open-door” approach to incarceration. The product was both a panopticon and a project of bio-chemical exchange. From the minerals of the onsite quarry that sourced prison stone, to the burning of timber from surrounding forests and the inmate nutrient intake from the prison garden, administrators calculated and monitored an interactive ecology. By integrating diet regimens and environmental elements with criminal sciences and regulated labour, Muratgia promised to combine the best aspects of established rehabilitation systems. The result brought together discipline and deforestation, penology and silviculture, to create a living and breathing institution.

Moreover, Ushuaia facilitated penal colonization in southernmost Argentina as inmates transformed and were transformed by this dynamic landscape, such that their writings challenged traditional distinctions between “inside” and “outside” worlds. From building railroads and docks to constructing the town’s broader infrastructure, labour operations blurred the spatial boundaries of the penitentiary, reaching beyond the prison grounds to the waters of Ushuaia Bay and the glacier-topped Martial Mountains. People moved fluidly in and out of the prison walls, as did howling winds and snow, exacerbating the ultimately grim living conditions of inmates. To understand these relationships is to unpack the multiple scales of a designed carceral ecology, which can illuminate how other penitentiaries, both rural and urban, were more porous, dynamic, and place-based than previously theorized.


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