Presidio Modelo was a former “model prison" of Panopticon design, located on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba, built between 1926 and 1931, during the repressive regime of Gerardo Machado.
The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched. Modeled after the notorious penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois, Presidio Modelo was considered the definitive example of efficient design, as up to six thousand prisoners could be watched and controlled with a minimum of staff, but it soon became infamous for unprecedented levels of corruption and cruelty.
Presidio Modelo consisted of four, six-story circular blocks with a central watchtower and cells of the prisoners occupying the circumference. Each cell extended the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen.
During WWII, many German and Japanese prisoners of war found themselves imprisoned at Presidio Modelo. However, the prison’s most famous inmates were Fidel Castro and the other Moncada rebels, who were imprisoned here from October 1953 to May 1955.
After Fidel Castro's revolutionary triumph in 1959, Presidio Modelo was used to jail political dissidents, counter-revolutionaries, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and anyone else considered unfit or an enemy to the new norms and dictates of the Socialist Cuban State. At one point there were 6,000 to 8,000 political prisoners in Presidio Modelo. In 1961, riots and hunger strikes broke out due to overcrowding, and finally in 1967, Presidio Modelo was closed down. The old building now serves as a museum and is declared a National Monument.
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