Argentine Penitentiary

Date: 1907
Owner: Archivo General de la Nacion, Argentina
Source Type: Images


This photograph depicts the National Penitentiary of Argentina in Buenos Aires, a facility completed in 1880 as part of a movement for prison reform. Although criminal traits were seen as biologically inheritable, the penitentiary was conceived as a place where those with the social malady of criminal behavior could be cured of their symptoms. Most importantly, prison reform was meant to exemplify Argentina's progress towards modernity by dealing with delinquents in a constructive manner based on scientific practices. Improving malefactors was one step towards improving the social body as a whole.

This penitentiary was thus built with a central watch tower and radiating halls, a design based on Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. The idea was that a handful of guards in the main tower could continually monitor the prisoners, and the inmates' awareness of being watched served as its own rehabilitating form of punishment. The penitentiary's discipline program followed a model from New York which stressed labor and education during the day and isolation at night time. Criminals were therefore "cured" by school and work by day while the panoptic surveillance of the central tower discouraged aberrant behavior while alone.

The reality of the National Penitentiary, however, fell far short of the ideal. It was meant to house 600 male prisoners in solitary cells but, by 1897, 5,153 people were incarcerated there. Overcrowding and inadequate provisions for prisoners were also endemic to Argentina's less self-consciously modern jails, which reformers claimed caused more criminal behavior than they cured.


Rodriguez, Julia. Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and Modern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

CITATION: Salvatore, Ricardo D. and Carlos Aguirre, eds. The Birth of the Penitentiary in Latin America: Essays on Criminology, Prison Reform, and Social Control, 1830-1940. Austin: University of Texas, 1996. Aerial view of the Buenos Aires Penitentiary (1925). Source: Archivo General de la Nacion, Buenos Aires.