Punk Planet 42 (March/April 2001)

This trip (and my visceral reaction to it)  ended up inspiring an ongoing photo project, called “Invitation to a Hanging: Prison Tourism,” by former MRR coordinator, and now Mother Jones photo editor Mark Murrmann. He talks a little more about it here.


We’re running late. (Should I mention, as usual?) The combination of downtown traffic and bad navigating choices means we’re in danger of missing the boat. Literally. Mark makes “Ack!” noises as we pull into an expensive parking garage, and a “Fuck it!” after glancing at the dashboard clock.

We run, grab our tickets, and get in line behind a family of four. The two children are under ten, and as the line lurches forward I wonder what could possibly be instructive about the destination we’re all headed for, that a seven year-old might learn something. After a (very cold) ten-minute ferry ride with at least two hundred other sightseers we’re on The Rock. Alternately described by travel guides as “a perfect vacation spot” and “a must-see,” Alcatraz Island is the former federal penitentiary turned national historical park, bird sanctuary, and public attraction. Available for a dollar at self-serve kiosks at the dock, a brochure states, “This story begins in 1859, when eleven military prisoners arrive on the island with the first Army garrison, and ends in 1963 when the last inmates are transferred and Alcatraz is abandoned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.”

Wary about stealing in front of state employees, I hesitate before taking one.

How does a federal prison become a popular tourist attraction? Prisons, like police and armed forces, are a part of the coercive machinery of the state. For thirty years Alcatraz served a dual function in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system as both an institution of severe incarceration and exemplary symbol of state control. Today, recreational convicts may board the Blue and Gold fleet to visit the island penitentiary and inhabit the ghostly life spaces of its inmates. Fundamental to its conception as a set of civilizing agencies, the state presents the prison as a civics lesson but a fun, “interactive” one. Operated by the National Park Service the Alcatraz tour promises an adventurous landscape, more real than the wax museums or celebrity restaurants on the mainland but just as virtual — a place of punishment turned educational theme park.

The hike into the interior of the island is measured from cannon to guard station, a memorial landscape dotted by the instruments of both war and imprisonment. An audio tour — narration provided by two Alcatraz correctional officers and former inmates– is available in the lobby of the prison, outside the souvenir shop. Most of the green-jacketed attendants are of color; the supervisor who tears the ticket stub is white, and a former Marine. Told to follow the blue line into the cellblock, another sign obligingly let us know when to push “play.”

The audio tour seeks to provide a concentrated historical memory of the cellblock and the meaning of the prison. The assumption might be that without the audio tour, you might not know what you’re looking at. You might miss the value of a particular stretch of cellblock, the nuance of steel bars. The audio tour interprets for you. Almost everyone wears headphones and follows the prescribed route, turning when told and looking when instructed to do so, even when what’s there to see is long gone. (Are we supposed to imagine surly inmates in their cells, dressed in prison blues?) There are pasteboard panoramas with mugshots and pull-quotes about Alcatraz’s more infamous inmates (Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, among them) and a disastrous 1946 escape involving the prison librarian. In some cells the products of years of confinement are displayed behind plate glass — landscape paintings and pencil drawings of inmates, paper mache heads left by a trio of escapees.

With a shrug (his) and a baring of teeth (mine) Mark and I find ourselves following orders, ducking through doorways on cue. We move through the cellblock, touching those places where the plaster has rotted away, fingering the exposed steel rods beneath the painted surfaces, the debris accumulating in the crevices: rocks, pull-tops, cellophane wrappers, dust. Doorsills are graffiti-ed with hearts and recent dates. The gun gallery –the caged balconies from which guards monitored the cellblocks– looms above us; the locks that once held machine guns, perhaps, still in place. And even though a steel firebox mounted on the wall of the D-block is pierced by bulletholes, no one approaches; the other tourists are busy standing between the radiators to look up at the Birdman’s former cell.

We are invited to step inside the “hole,” a series of cinderblock cells with no light fixtures and thick steel doors. There is tourist trash in the sink  –a Calistoga bottle, candy wrappers– and the toilet is filled with lumpy concrete. The voice of a former inmate echoes in my head, “I would take a button and throw it up into the air. I’d turn myself around and around and then drop to the floor to search for the button in the dark. And when I found it I’d do it all over again.” The floor is cold to the touch.

Well-equipped tourists pan the cellblocks through viewfinders and eyepieces. I could say something (simplistic) about the filtering of reality through a televisual screen, but it’s not as if the experience of touring a prison isn’t already a bizarre cultural production and always interpreted through one ideological lens or another.

The tape skips –I go from an inmate memory of prison food to the rat-tat-tat of a gun battle– and I have to rewind.

The audio tour and several brochures also detail escape attempts — inmates who steal Army uniforms, saw through bars, dig tunnels with spoons, throw themselves into the frigid waters of the Bay. That most end in the deaths of the escapees is stated matter-of-factly, and the manner of their deaths sometimes elaborated upon in chronological order. “He was shot by guards. They died inside the prison walls from gas. He died from hypothermia and exhaustion, swimming to the Gold Gate Bridge. He was executed.” A map locates the numbered spots on the island where these attempts occurred, and where their deaths presumably took place.

I think we are supposed to be impressed by the technological and natural advantages of the prison, by its high walls, its frigid moat and once state-of-the-art machinery. Impressed by the prison’s record of failed escapes and by extension, its success as a penitentiary, the scent of misery that must have permeated even the concrete here. Last but hardly least we are expected to congratulate the state for its capacity for (imagined) reform. The prison tour suggests the U.S. Bureau of Prisons decommissioned Alcatraz because it was a carceral relic, after a national campaign for prison reform in the 1960s brought attention to rehabilitation. We are prompted to believe that the state abandoned the Rock in a fit of enlightenment, and that the carceral system in the time since has improved.

I don’t think Mark and I are impressed.

Amusement parks and other tourist sites attempt to provide the illusion of carnival, of spontaneous pleasure, in a rational and controlled environment. Rides, theaters, employees in wacky animal costumes, carefully cultivated paths that seem to wander. Alcatraz is a disciplined and disciplinary space in which the rational and controlled environment is the attraction — you arrive to see the apparatus of state control in effect, or its aftermath. To witness a certain display of power– the barbed wire, the closet-sized cells, the exposed toilets, the bars over windows, the series of locked steel doors, the poverty of prison existence, the extremity of governmentality. The regimentation of everyday life (narrated by inmate and guard), the spectacle of the repression of unruly bodies (asked to imagine the prisoners in their cells), the map of escape attempts and murdered inmates — all this is both the exhibition and the lesson.

Here, the exercise of power is the story but how it happens is the question.

We learn that arriving prisoners were given a copy of the “Regulations for Inmates, U.S.P.” and expected to keep this in their cells at all times. Regulation number five of fifty-three states, “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Everything else is a privilege.” I am reminded of French theorist Michel Foucault who famously examined the modernization of the carceral system, the coercive technologies of both discipline and punishment enacted minutely on the body of the convict. Isolated in individual cells and subjected to seemingly ceaseless surveillance, the prisoner is taught to regulate his own behavior, to internalize the eye of power. The disciplinary regime of the prison is thus the calculated manipulation of the body and its elements, gestures, environment. To terrorize, to make the convict a docile and self-regulating body.

What purpose does a national park play when it once served as an institution of confinement? Monuments, national parks and tourist spaces are meaning-making machines that are produced not only by material means but also historical processes and symbolic gestures. Their function –undoubtedly instrumental and ideological — cannot be hidden; they make visible those histories that are appropriate to the political project. (It is an act that also produces its opposite: a repressed history, a state of amnesia, a marginalized population, a contest of meaning. But how to access it–?) But the available, official resources provide the tourist a specific ideological lens and historical memory. Rather than activating an interrogation of historical circumstance, the institutional memory of Alcatraz is deployed as self-evident because the site is open to public inspection. The interpretative discourse insulates the visitor from the lifespace represented here, while controlling its representation and lodging it firmly within the official historical record.


Mark and I move impatiently around other tourists pausing in doorways and gaping. We watch them pose one at a time behind the bars of the open cells, turning to smile and grin at the camera. A joking, jocular gesture. They make faces, laughing and reaching their arms through the gaps. I step past a well-padded, middle-aged white man into an open cell the size of my closet, ruining the photograph his wife takes to run my hand over the painted cinderblock.

The pretense of occupying the identical space of a prisoner is encouraged. The audio tour suggests you grip the bars, pace the length of the cell. The brochure volunteers a typical scenario, a Choose Your Own Adventure without the choice: “You arrive at U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz in shackles…. Once on the island and in the cellhouse, you’re stripped searched and issued prison clothes.” The dramatic reenactment ends on a dire note, “Will you live by the rules and leave Alcatraz when your time is served? Or will you test the rules? Will you be caught and punished? Will you die in a shower-room or recreation-yard stabbing? Or will you escape?

Mark is unforgiving. He mutters, “I hate that they’re smiling and laughing. I wanted to lock them in a cell and leave ’em there overnight in the dark and the cold.”

It feels weird. The function of displaying power, its coercive technologies and making it visible for all to see, reimagines the docile body of the convict as a sign of state control and punishment. Like all the stories about failed escapes and long years spent in isolation, the detailed descriptions of locks, doors, and metal detectors, the pretense of inhabiting the lifespace of an inmate serves the display of power, if only to impress upon the visitor the totality of the disciplinary regime. The prison tour deliberately references the allure of the historical cinematic record —The Rock, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption , all featuring the singular prisoner as rebel protagonist– and invites a fantasy of temporary identification. (It works better without real bodies — the fantasy is more complete and less complicated.) What is most ordinary in the context of the tourist destination becomes a source of fascination for the visitor — cows being milked on a farm or an inmate’s daily routine.

But the fantasy breaks apart. Occupying that imaginary space is impossible because the cell door is open; as a visitor you can always step outside the confines of cinderblock and steel bars to see yourself from the side of power. It is unlikely any of the tourists will ever find themselves incarcerated. Aggregate buying power makes the middle-classes the prime consumers of such historical displays. The real appeal of such fantasies may be that they express to desire not to know the material and social conditions of the prison-industrial complex in the present, or the stories of complicity with various forms of state power. The United States has a prison population that is overwhelmingly working-class, poor, and of color. The fantasy of identification reiterates the efficiency of Alcatraz as a penitentiary and the state as a force of control. Invited to admire the case hardened, tool-resistant steel bars from inside the cell, the Alcatraz prison tour does not seek to terrorize visitors with the display of coercive technologies but to place them on the side of power, to understand the prison and the carceral system as operating “for the good of all.” Or as social theorist Tony Bennett remarks about museums and exhibitions (and the prison tour fits right in), “This power subjugates by flattery, placing itself on the side of the people by affording them a place within its workings; a power which placed the people behind it, inveigled into complicity with it rather than cowed into submission before it.”

We return the tape recorders to the attendants and wander around the grounds, depressed. I think we don’t know how to respond, or recuperate the experience. One of three souvenir shops on the island is just inside the administration building and we step into the fray. (There is another shop at the wharf where the boat docks.) That a penitentiary inspires so much commercial kitsch involves some kind of blind spot; really, I just don’t know what to say anymore as I take in the display. There are “genuine reproductions” of Alcatraz prison silverware and guards’ key sets, coffee table books and testimonials from guards and prisoners alike, and a 1960s recipe pamphlet put together by the guard’s wives. (How about Warden So-and-So’s wife’s peach cobbler?) Postcards of the bird sanctuary, plaster statues of the lighthouse and the main building holding the cellblock, and an exact replica of the booklet of rules given to each inmate upon arrival. It is near Christmas, but maybe the shop always does so much business; the register rings and rings.

We skip the thirteen-minute documentary about the 1969-1971 occupation of Alcatraz by the American Indian Movement, on purpose. Did we have to see it to know which side was the “right” side? Walking through the back of the dim auditorium we hear snatches of the narration: “…finally public support had dwindled and the Army was able to move in and take back Alkatraz….” Reboarding the ferry a few people are carrying their new souvenirs in plastic bags that read, “I did time at Alcatraz” above a broadly drawn caricature of a figure holding the bars in front of him. We’re finally tired and just want to go home.

Mark takes a photograph.

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