Some say that the horse-shoe layout of the prison on the island of Santo Stefano, off the coast of Lazio and Campania in the Tyrrhenian Sea, was designed according to the theories of the British philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham, who had invented a new kind of circular prison building called the “Panopticon” with the goal of “obtaining power of mind over mind”.
When Bentham theorized about the base of an ideal cone, made of visual rays that all converged towards the eye of the beholder, Bentham had in mind the very practical point of view of a prison guard, able to check on all the prisoners at all times, while the prisoners themselves never knew for sure whether they were being watched or not.
Built at the end of the 17th century by order of the Bourbon king Ferdinand IV, the Santo Stefano prison held “celebrity inmates” such as the writer Luigi Settembrini, the brigand Carmine Crocco, the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, and the bandit Sante Pollastri. During Fascism, even the future president of the Republic, Sandro Pertini, was imprisoned here.
The prison has not been used since 1965. Fortunately all the prisoners are gone, and nobody is forced to live here anymore, oppressed by the deaf closed walls and by the distressing noise of the open sea, with its continuous breath of freedom, impossible to reach.