Within the next few months a remarkable new restaurant will open in Brixton prison. The Clink will offer fine dining to the public – prepared and served by prisoners. Typical offerings will include lobster and crab quenelles with a truffle bisque and pan-fried salt cod with peppers and chard. Only the plastic cutlery and the lack of a wine menu will give away its location. Yet perhaps the most extraordinary fact about it will be the building in which it’s being housed.
Brixton was built at a time of great disquiet about how prisoners were being punished. The discovery that many spent their time in idleness, left to get on with their sentences pretty much as the pleased, had long been a national scandal.
For one man the answer lay in the design of the prison itself. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy demanded the greatest good for the greatest number. He aimed to turn penal reform into a science, emphasising the principles of hard labour, solitary confinement and, crucially, constant observation.
In 1792 he published plans for a building which he entitled the Panopticon or Inspection House. It would be efficiently managed and clean – he recommended a toilet for each inmate – but most importantly the cells were to be arranged in such a way that prisoners could be watched at all times.
His ideas helped shape the building of a national prison by the Thames at Millbank. It was completed in 1816 on the site now occupied by Tate Modern. People were held in individual cells in seven massive pentagons. These surrounded a hexagon – a single point from which staff were able to observe the thousand prisoners the building was intended to house.
Among the disciples of Bentham and his panopticon principle was the London architect James Bevans. In 1815 he presented a plan to parliament – ultimately rejected – for a new lunatic asylum to replace the notorious Bedlam. It consisted of an ‘irregular heptagon, with seven wings radiating from the seven sides of the central building . . . it allows of air, exercise, water and inspection’.
In 1818 he submitted a similar design for the planned prison at Brixton. He proposed the cells form a giant octagonal wheel with a four storey octagonal house at its centre. From here the governor would have an all-seeing view of the prison – and the people in it. It was an early form of CCTV.
Bevans’ plans were significantly modified – but the principle of the ‘all-seeing’ octagonal governor’s house remained. It was built in 1819 and ensured a panoramic view of the prison including the notorious treadwheels which fanned around it like the petals of a flower.
It has been many years since the governor of Brixton has lived within the prison walls. In recent times this simple but historic Georgian building, if not exactly falling into decay, has certainly been little appreciated. It has largely been used for administration – the place where the post gets sorted and the bills paid. Its paint has peeled and the rooftop clock long since stopped. But now it is undergoing a much-deserved facelift.
The Brixton Clink will be the third restaurant of its kind. Two others are already operating with great success in HMP High Down in Surrey and HMP Cardiff. The philosophy is to give people the chance to learn skills that give the genuine prospect of employment on release. It was once a building used to spy on prisoners. Now it will be used to help them find a job.