Today is just-do-it day, ending the internal debate about posting this story or at least a good part of it. It’s still in process, although it’s been through many edits already. I have notes on areas that still need to be more fully developed. It started out as a short story, about 10,000 words, and has expanded to 20,000 now. There might be another thousand or two in the hopper.
The story is science fiction, a look forward to a possible refinement and perfection of the Panopticon prison, where inmates are always under the eye of their warders. If you’re curious about the title, you can Google Jeremy Bentam and Panopticon.
Looking up at the enormous wall that loomed over Westminster Prison, waiting for the gate to open, I hadn’t been able to tell whether I was thrilled or frightened. I was used to prison walls, after all, but this was different. More threatening, somehow. I knew the bare facts: 30 foot walls surrounding approximately six acres, not that different from other prisons I’d visited. What was distinctive about it was the lack of razor wire at the top. I’d never seen walls that weren’t topped with razor wire, and asking around, my colleagues in other regions hadn’t either. That lack of the extra few feet of escape-proofing said something important about the security. It made me uneasy enough to think that it might be something I didn’t really wanted to know.
Its inmates were the kind most feared by the public, brutal killers too dangerous to ever see freedom again. Guilty of multiple murders, torture, and rape, and deemed incapable of being rehabilitated in any way that could guarantee society’s future safety, they lived out their lives here, effectively dead, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. How had this prison managed never to have had an escape, or even any major violence, in all the years of its operation? The decades of secrecy had given rise to all kinds of wild rumors. The prisoners were subjected to illegal medical experiments and then disposed of. Guards were turned loose to discipline prisoners without having to worry about rules. Prisoners weren’t confined to their cells and were simply turned loose to survive however they could, fighting and killing each other without fear of any penalties.
Even though I didn’t believe any of that, I still couldn’t help a shiver of apprehension at the thought of entering the place. But it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was the most qualified for it — twelve years as chief investigator for the Northwest Region Bureau of Prisons. If the assignment hadn’t been thoroughly official, vetted by bigwigs at every level almost all the way up to the president, I would have sold my blood, maybe even my soul to have this chance. How many people had ever been allowed more than a politely tolerant glimpse of Westminster’s public relations facade? Up till now, anyone who managed to get into the prison on official business was given a tour of the offices, the kitchens, a long-distance glimpse via telepresence, of the internal guard tower and beyond that, an out-of-focus view of some cells. They were shown a map of the structure, but with no scale indicated. No one knew how the place was staffed and run. Who the hell wouldn’t be itching to get hold of the key to that kind of control? Unless it was just public relations BS.
Westminster was the mystery that everyone in corrections wanted to solve. And I was the lucky son who was going to solve it. It was the most secure and the most secretive supermax prison ever built. If anyone had the vaguest idea what was behind the blank wall that surrounded it, or the least idea of how it was managed, it might have served as a model for other nations. Bribes had been paid, political influence had been brought to bear, more than once over the years, but Westminster had kept its secrets. Until now.
Only one thing could have opened the door all the way and allowed those secrets to be laid bare: the threat of a severe funding cut, by a legislature sick of being kept in the dark about how the taxpayers’ money was being spent. All three parties put aside their differences — most of them, anyway — and hammered out a bill that would crack Westminster wide open. Even the years of complaints by a judiciary that was forced to condemn men to an unknown fate hadn’t been able to do that. It was as if the successive wardens of West were absolute monarchs of a country with an impenetrable border. All anyone knew was that when a man was sentenced to West, he would never be seen or heard of again.
Here on the cusp of the 22nd century, hidden away for nearly forty years, was the most expensive, and most radical, criminal containment project ever conceived. It was based on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, but what did that really mean? The structure, according to the blueprints, followed Bentham’s circular plan, with the all-seeing eye of the guards in the center tower. But beyond that? Nobody knew. How were the prisoners treated? How did the prison prevent outbreaks of violence?
The hands that gave out or denied funding wanted to know whether society still needed Westminster. Had its presence and its ever-present threat to the most violent and dangerous criminals resulted in any improvements in public safety? That had always been an arguable point, with equally strong pros and cons. Overall crime statistics hadn’t changed much. They went up and down with the economy, just like they always had. Besides, Westminster was only one prison, and it only held a few hundred prisoners, the provably “worst of the worst.”
One argument against its effect on crime was that the threat was too vague to be taken seriously by the very people it was designed to hold. If there was anything about prison that all the experts agreed on, it was that the threat wasn’t any kind of deterrent. But nobody ever came back from Westminster to talk about it. In the long run, all arguments broke down against the near-universal feeling that the kind of person who wound up in West wasn’t likely to do a risk assessment before setting out to murder or maim.
So there I was, nervous as hell, standing in front of the only human-size door I’d seen in the drive from the front gate. The gate itself was a monstrosity that was perfectly proportioned for the thirty-foot walls, and the sally port was no less impressive.[ Asks why the sally port is so large. The ultimate in caution – if an emergency of any kind required large infusion of police or military.] This door to the side of the sally port was, in a way, far more frightening. It reminded me that I had the privilege of walking in on my own, and walking out again, while the condemned men who were brought here in armored vans would never see the free world again.
Exactly what that meant was what I was here to discover. The thought of being swallowed up in that maw set my heart racing and my hands sweating. I hoped it was just the anticipation of being the first person to see every detail and report back to the rest of the world, and not the irrational fear that once I was in I would never be allowed to come back out. It was an uncomfortable reminder of being a brand new guard in my first job out of college, and too aware of how dangerous the work could be. In nearly 21 years I’d seen everything — the best-run prisons and the very worst. There had been plenty of indictments along the way, massive shakeups that had sent staff to prison for brutality, smuggling, bribery, sexual abuse. From the wardens at the top of the hierarchy right down to the maintenance crews, no one wanted to see me coming. I didn’t think the warden of Westminster would greet me with delight.
But this was different. No matter what I discovered, most of it would be labeled top secret and limited to the highest of the higher ups, and to the not quite so high, on a need to know basis. Only the most superficial of the prison’s secrets would be revealed to the public, just enough to satisfy the ever-burning curiosity about the place. I’d signed a non-disclosure agreement that was worth my life to violate. Literally. One leak, and I could conceivably end up here myself.
Several seconds after I’d pushed the buzzer I was beginning to wonder if anyone even knew I was out there. Then, with a loud click, the door opened, and I stepped into the sally port. Three uniformed men armed with rifles stood at different points around the interior. That was more security than I was used to, but the weapons were aimed at the floor, and I decided it was okay to breathe again. It was just as well because I was overwhelmed by the space that dwarfed mere human beings. Even the size of the main entrance hadn’t prepared me for the cavernous space and it was tough trying not to look like a gaping tourist.
My first thought was a question. Why such an enormous space when sentences to West were few and far between? With all the legal precautions in place to ensure that life in isolation was a just and appropriate fate, why build a sally port that could accomodate a small fleet of transport vehicles?
I shook off the question reluctantly. It might be one of those I’d be better off not asking, but I wouldn’t know until I’d sounded out whoever was going to be my escort. That was one of the things we’d talked about, preparing me for this visit —deciding what I needed to ask, and figuring out what not to ask. I wasn’t fool enough to believe that some things wouldn’t be hidden, but I had learned some diplomacy over the years, dealing with people who often had something to hide. Even here it should be possible to ask in a way that allowed people to just say no.
Nobody seemed inclined to tell me what I should do next, so I looked around, not that there was anything much to look at. The walls were just as blank and featureless as the one that surrounded the entire prison, and the walls of the building itself. That was one of the first things that struck me on the drive in, the odd construction of the prison. I’d guessed that the massive building in front of me was about three stories high. And it was only a guess because there were no windows to serve as a measure, except in the one-story protrusion wrapped partly around the dome that was the bulk of the prison. Externally, it fit the architectural drawings, but just like the drawings, the scale was impossible to judge. The only word that had come to mind, totally inadequate, was huge.
Looking across to the far wall, I saw another human-sized door. I hesitated, reluctant to step forward, uncertain as to what I was supposed to do next. Even if the rifles weren’t aimed at me, that could change in a heart beat. Should I head for the door? Wait for instructions? I took a few steps before the clicks stopped me. The sound was familiar from films, but it wasn’t one I was used to in real life and my heart pounded. It was a relief when a voice from somewhere above me said,
I waited, just barely reassured by the ‘please.’ Was I being scanned? Had something gone wrong and I was about to be ejected? My appointment had been confirmed and reconfirmed at the highest levels. It would be a bitter disappointment if I had to turn around without seeing anything but this sally port. Not to mention the reactions of my superiors. Again, I kicked myself mentally for being stupid. West’s warden, as powerful as he might be inside these walls, hadn’t been given any choice. He would see me, and show me — everything. Then the door opened and a perfectly ordinary looking, middle-aged guy in a business suit came toward me.
“Your identification and authorization, please.” The tone was pleasant enough, but it was just as bland as his looks, and didn’t tell me a thing. Up close, he was a type that I might have met anywhere, the generic official, practically anonymous. He held out his hand, and kept it out while I fumbled to get my identification out of my wallet, and the authorization papers with the agency letterhead, signatures and seal out of my case. “Thank you.”
I watched him skim through them, then run a small scanner over my identification card. “Welcome to Westminster Prison, Mr. Stanton,” he said, as he handed everything back. “I’m Deputy Warden Feldman. Warden Chandler is expecting you. Come this way, please.”