The Panopticon — a prison so built radially that a guard at a central position can see all the prisoners — is also known as the infamous and ever-vigilant Foucauldian unblinking eye of authority watching every move a prisoner makes while remaining rough and ready to strike punishment as often as needed, has come to the streets of Harlem as “Sky Watch.”

The Sky Watch, about two stories tall, consists of a booth for a cop that stands atop a tower that collapses when the officer is ready to leave. The booth, which gives the cop a line of sight from 20 feet up, has four cameras, a high-powered spotlight and various sensors. The digital cameras, which continue recording when the booth is unstaffed, save the video to a hard drive.The units, which cost from $40,000 to $100,000 apiece, are also being used by the U.S. Border Patrol and cops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas and Fort Worth. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the department has leased one or two of the devices and hopes to eventually have five. Since they’re moveable, they’re more flexible than fixed cameras. One tower was installed about three weeks ago at 129th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem – drawing cheers and jeers.

What does this mean for the innocent residents of Harlem who now live in an open-air prison? Here’s a traditional prison Panopticon where a central watchtower sits at the center of the structure surrounded by prisoners in their cells.

The prisoners cannot see the watchtower but sunlight pouring through outer windowed cell walls shows all movement of the prisoners in shadow to the unblinking Panopticonic eye:

The Panopticon

Here’s the Harlem Sky Watch box in action — have you ever seen an uglier obelisk wannabe? — where the sentry tower becomes the center tower of the Panopticon while the buildings and apartments surrounding it become the windowed prison cells from which there is no escape from the unblinking eye of punishment:

The Harlem Panopticon The Harlem Panopticon

A watched cauldron never boils, but an observed populace ultimately overthrows its gaoler. Just who are being protected in Harlem and just who are being watched? The unblinking eye of authority stings us all from the NYPD Harlem Panopticon and we are all made more guilty because of it ominous presence.

34 Comments

  1. Oh, boy is it ever ugly, Nicola! I’m sure they wouldn’t mind building a permanent Panopticon out of stone and marble to make their spying look prettier while still being disgusting beneath the facade.
    It’s interesting you don’t see these Panopticons sitting in the middle of Times Square or Park Avenue.
    Yes, people will become prisoners in their own homes as they purchase stuff to hide from the ever-prying police eye. It’s sad and discriminatory.

  2. Nicola is right. The thing sure is ug-ly. What must the residents think having that thing set down in the middle of their neighborhood?

  3. Aren’t there eyes like that all over NYC, though? I know the NYU area right at Washington Sq. Park has a big NYPD blue mobile home that watches the drug activity in the park. Isn’t that the same thing?

  4. Aren’t there eyes like that all over NYC, though? I know the NYU area right at Washington Sq. Park has a big NYPD blue mobile home that watches the drug activity in the park. Isn’t that the same thing?

  5. Yes, Anne, there are eyes watching and listening. They are discreet. Even the giant blue NYPD mobile home sort of blends into the background.
    This NYPD Harlem Panopticon, however, is different. It is making a statement in the middle of an intersection. It commands fear and portends disbelief in an unbiased police force.

  6. Yes, Anne, there are eyes watching and listening. They are discreet. Even the giant blue NYPD mobile home sort of blends into the background.
    This NYPD Harlem Panopticon, however, is different. It is making a statement in the middle of an intersection. It commands fear and portends disbelief in an unbiased police force.

  7. Hi David,
    If they were like all of the cities in my area, they’d put cameras on light poles with flashing red and blue lights to keep an eye on everything, without needing an officer to actually stand guard at a particular location.
    Of course, there are some who say that having flashing red and blue lights on light poles just tells people who are looking for bad things — but who might not be familiar with the neighborhood, such as kids from the suburbs — that there lots of bad things in the immediate area.
    Police towers aren’t a new idea.
    From Roadfan:

    Goshen Police tower.
    This octagon brick structure was built in the 1920s due to all the gangsters (from Chicago?) that were “terrorizing” Goshen’s banks back then.
    If you look closely you can see some signs in an attempt to save/show it’s significance.
    Laura Coyle, Community Development Program Coordinator for Goshen, Indiana, e-mailed me in October, 2003 with the real reason for the Police Booth –
    The police booth, for example, was erected IN CASE gangsters came through on their way across county, using the Lincoln Highway.
    Some of them were from Chicago but others didn’t really have a home…
    John Dillinger was the worst fear because he did hit on some of the banks in surrounding communities.
    But by the time the police booth was erected (1939) Dillinger had been in the ground 5 years… news traveled slower than the gangsters back then.

    Scroll down the post — past the pictures of the small town with the street named after the most hated man in WWII — to see pictures of the Goshen police booth.

  8. Hi David,
    If they were like all of the cities in my area, they’d put cameras on light poles with flashing red and blue lights to keep an eye on everything, without needing an officer to actually stand guard at a particular location.
    Of course, there are some who say that having flashing red and blue lights on light poles just tells people who are looking for bad things — but who might not be familiar with the neighborhood, such as kids from the suburbs — that there lots of bad things in the immediate area.
    Police towers aren’t a new idea.
    From Roadfan:

    Goshen Police tower.
    This octagon brick structure was built in the 1920s due to all the gangsters (from Chicago?) that were “terrorizing” Goshen’s banks back then.
    If you look closely you can see some signs in an attempt to save/show it’s significance.
    Laura Coyle, Community Development Program Coordinator for Goshen, Indiana, e-mailed me in October, 2003 with the real reason for the Police Booth –
    The police booth, for example, was erected IN CASE gangsters came through on their way across county, using the Lincoln Highway.
    Some of them were from Chicago but others didn’t really have a home…
    John Dillinger was the worst fear because he did hit on some of the banks in surrounding communities.
    But by the time the police booth was erected (1939) Dillinger had been in the ground 5 years… news traveled slower than the gangsters back then.

    Scroll down the post — past the pictures of the small town with the street named after the most hated man in WWII — to see pictures of the Goshen police booth.

  9. Chris!
    I understand observation is an important part of police work but to be so obvious in a part of town that is traditionally poor and overwhelmingly minority with such an ugly, obvious structure doesn’t seem to do much to make the disenfranchised feel like a part of the community core.
    Now that Goshen police block is one formidable force! I do like that it is on the ground and part of the landscape.

  10. Chris!
    I understand observation is an important part of police work but to be so obvious in a part of town that is traditionally poor and overwhelmingly minority with such an ugly, obvious structure doesn’t seem to do much to make the disenfranchised feel like a part of the community core.
    Now that Goshen police block is one formidable force! I do like that it is on the ground and part of the landscape.

  11. Chris!
    You didn’t get put in moderation! You re-established your relationship with your old friend: Akismet!
    It’s sort of warming to see as things change, some old chestnuts of expectation remain forever the same.
    :mrgreen:

  12. Hi David,
    I was thinking maybe I accidently hit control “A” or something like that and might have deleted my post before I hit enter, so the second post is redundant.
    I think it’s a bad idea — just for safety reasons.
    I wouldn’t want to be the person stationed in the booth waiting for something to happen. Could some deranged person try to do something to me while I was suspended over the ground?
    I remember reading a book written by a cop who said he didn’t like being flagged down by pedestrians because he felt vulnerable sitting in the car because it limited his escape options if the situation went bad.
    There are too many crazy people out there and being obvious and stationary seems to be somewhat dangerous.

  13. Chris —
    You’re right these obvious observation posts are ripe for tipping over if the moment and opportunity are right.
    The problem with Panopticonic observation is that it doesn’t work. We don’t use Panopticons in prisons any longer because they wasted a lot of empty space and the prisoners began to not care if they are being stared at every day and went about their usual business of being unruly inmates.
    A Panopticon requires a moral compass in those being observed to work.
    If there is not is an iron fist ready to strike at the first instance of wrongdoing in a Panopticonic system of policing, you are wasting money and resources unless, of course, you put up bunches of Panopticons but only a staff a few of them. Then the all-knowing, unblinking eye might begin to force good behavior in the wake of bad.

  14. Hi David,
    Very true.
    If someone does something and nothing happens, then a lesson is learned.
    I read the NY1 article and saw that the Panopticon is located near a brand new condo project, so it must be a relatively safe area to put something stationary like the tower in place.
    I see this sort of thing on the highway in Illinois.
    The State Police sometimes position “drone” cars without an officer to “calm” traffic. Of course, the first car that sees it will slow down, then speed up when he realizes there’s no one in the car. The rest of the cars keep on speeding when nobody else in front slows down.
    The deterrent effect is lost when people realize the car is just a “paper tiger” without any teeth.

  15. Hi David,
    Very true.
    If someone does something and nothing happens, then a lesson is learned.
    I read the NY1 article and saw that the Panopticon is located near a brand new condo project, so it must be a relatively safe area to put something stationary like the tower in place.
    I see this sort of thing on the highway in Illinois.
    The State Police sometimes position “drone” cars without an officer to “calm” traffic. Of course, the first car that sees it will slow down, then speed up when he realizes there’s no one in the car. The rest of the cars keep on speeding when nobody else in front slows down.
    The deterrent effect is lost when people realize the car is just a “paper tiger” without any teeth.

  16. Chris!
    Yes, the Panopticon is near a new condo project — and the Harlem residents who welcome any sort of police presence wonder why the Panopticon is getting set up now, next to luxury condos… those longtime residents see the condos and the “protection” as insults to the neighborhood that wasn’t deserving of policing until the money showed up…
    If you’re going to police — DO IT — don’t fake it with fake things because the bad guys laugh at you and the good citizens feel ripped off.

  17. Chris!
    Yes, the Panopticon is near a new condo project — and the Harlem residents who welcome any sort of police presence wonder why the Panopticon is getting set up now, next to luxury condos… those longtime residents see the condos and the “protection” as insults to the neighborhood that wasn’t deserving of policing until the money showed up…
    If you’re going to police — DO IT — don’t fake it with fake things because the bad guys laugh at you and the good citizens feel ripped off.

  18. At least it is obvious – there is a fresh debate going on about the intended use of *super microphones* that can hear private conversations at all the proposed Olympic venues in London.
    South Sea Island anyone ?

  19. At least it is obvious – there is a fresh debate going on about the intended use of *super microphones* that can hear private conversations at all the proposed Olympic venues in London.
    South Sea Island anyone ?

  20. It is obvious, but I think it’s a magical dodge: Look over there at that giant Panopticon watching you while all around you in every direction you’re being both secretly videotaped and recorded by better, surreptitious means. It’s a Trojan Horse without any Trojans.
    You’re going to have to explain your South Sea Island reference for our international readers, Nicola!
    😀

  21. It is obvious, but I think it’s a magical dodge: Look over there at that giant Panopticon watching you while all around you in every direction you’re being both secretly videotaped and recorded by better, surreptitious means. It’s a Trojan Horse without any Trojans.
    You’re going to have to explain your South Sea Island reference for our international readers, Nicola!
    😀

  22. Ths South Sea Island is where myself and others are all going to flee to when the UK government gets too intrusive.
    We think somewhere in the region of Samoa would be a good bet.

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