There is a most unusual prison in the very heart of Taiwan’s bustling modern capital. Though it lies in full view of both Taipei residents and the hundreds of foreign students who live near or study at National Taiwan Normal University (Shida) few stop to appreciate this perfect model of a postmodern disciplinary institution. It is none other than Taipei Experimental Prison #1, the best kept open secret of Da-an District.
The scale of the prison is not large, it can hold at most a few hundred prisoners, but their shouts and screams, blood chilling to hear, are audible from the street outside. The State has apparently limited the confined to younger prisoners, judging from the faces seen staring out from between the bars on the outer wall, perhaps in the hope that the revolutionary techniques of this experimental prison will soon return these convicts to society, newly molded into model and subservient citizens.
So what is it which makes this prison so unusual? How are its grey concrete walls, barbed wire fences, high walls covered in shards of glass, and metal bars any different from any other modern prison? In what way is this Taiwanese penal invention indicative of a coming larger epistemic shift?
The first and most obviously innovative characteristic of this institution which immediate captures the attention of the careful observer who identifies the prison as such is its location. Taipei Experimental Prison #1 is strategically located right on the southeastern edge of the Shida university campus, and its outer walls border one of Taipei’s most bustling night markets: the Shida night market.
Here we can witness a new shift in disciplinary technology. Where once the body was the site of punishment, and thereafter the State focused its disciplining energies upon the mind, we witness in Taipei Experimental Prison #1 the return of body, or specifically the senses, to the fore. However, instead of scourging or severing the body of the convict, here we see the imprisoned punished and disciplined through temptation of the body itself.
This prison is the very inverse of the celebrated Panopticon. There the gaze of the State falls upon the convicted in every prison cell: it is all-seeing and all-penetrating. In Taipei Experimental Prison #1 the reverse holds true. Here, it is the prisoner who is all-seeing. From their cell windows the confined can witness all around them the decadent excesses of student freedom. Happy youth calls out to them as students prance all around the prison in unbounded gaiety. They carry not only their books for study, but all the products of their exuberant material consumption.
But these painful sights are but the kindest tortures to behold in Taipei Experimental Prison #1, because my friends, these poor confined souls are not merely all-seeing but all-smelling. This prison is nothing less than a Panolfacticon. As the heat of the afternoon dissipates (not among the punishments of this prison, since all cells are supplied with air conditioning to prevent convicts from being distracted from the greater pains that await them), slowly the smells of the night market begin to penetrate through the open bars and vents, like a sweet airborne poison poured into the sleeping ear of a napping prisoner. The torture must be agonizing as the mouth-watering delicacies are being prepared and served to hundreds of hungry customers in the market just beyond their reach. No manner of confinement, save the torments of Tantalus in the depths of Tartarus, can more cruelly remind the prisoner of the pleasures they forfeit.
I was denied permission to enter the prison and conduct interviews with its residents so I cannot give authentic voice to the horrors experienced by those within. In fact, in an attempt to deny the atrocities that are being carried out, I was told by one guard, who feigned a look of bewilderment, that this was in fact a dormitory of the university! That they could even think to steep to such lies to cover up their crimes!