Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Left Masthead
May 24, 2016
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
Sign up for Truthdig's Email NewsletterLike Truthdig on FacebookFollow Truthdig on TwitterSubscribe to Truthdig's RSS Feed





The Gene: An Intimate History

Truthdig Bazaar
Changing Venezuela

Changing Venezuela

By Gregory Wilpert
$17.79

America’s Child

America’s Child

By Susan Sherman
$11.70

more items

 
Report
Print this item

Alcatraz: A Prison as Disneyland

Posted on Nov 30, 2014

By Chris Hedges

Shutterstock


SAN FRANCISCO—I took the ferry from Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero to Alcatraz. I stepped onto the island from the gangway, walked up the hill to the old prison entrance and was given a portable audio guide. I spent two hours going through the corridors and cells where horrific suffering and trauma crushed human beings. Alcatraz purportedly had the highest insanity rate of any federal penitentiary of its era.

I was regaled through the headset with stories about famous Alcatraz inmates including Al Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, escape attempts, the 1946 armed uprising that was ruthlessly put down by the Marine Corps, and intrepid FBI agents who hunted down the nation’s most notorious criminals and brought them to justice. In this binary, cartoon narrative of good guys and bad guys, of cops and gangsters, even the repugnant J. Edgar Hoover was resurrected as a virtuous symbol of law and order.

At the end of the tour—5,000 people a day, some 1.4 million a year, visit the prison—we were funneled into the gift shop. It was possible to buy T-shirts, replica blue prisoner shirts, replica tin prison cups and other Alcatraz souvenirs. We were encouraged to take cards from a wooden rack and mail them to foreign governments on behalf of selected prisoners of conscience. The message was clear: In the United States those in prison deserve it; in foreign lands they are imprisoned unjustly. The Disneyfication of Alcatraz is the equivalent of turning one of Stalin’s gulags into a prison-themed amusement park. Prisons are institutionalized evil. And whitewashing evil is a moral monstrosity.

The Alcatraz narrative as presented by the National Park Service ignores the savagery and injustice of America’s system of mass incarceration, in which we today imprison 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners although Americans are only 5 percent of the global population. It ignores our decades-long use of torture, isolation and trauma to turn prisoners into psychological cripples. It ignores that most prisoners are poor and never had adequate legal defense. It ignores how people of color in our urban “internal colonies” are worth nothing on the streets but, in cages, each generates $40,000 to $50,000 a year for corporations. It ignores that prisoners are repeatedly punished and given longer sentences not for crimes they committed while free but for amorphous infractions such as “disrespect” and “agitation” done in prison. It ignores the prison system’s one-sided “justice” that denies prisoners a fair hearing. It ignores that a guard is God, that he or she can verbally and physically abuse a prisoner without repercussions. It ignores that prisons are despotic fiefdoms. It ignores the daily humiliation, despair and pain of those trapped inside. It ignores that prisoners who initially believe in the system, who think justice is possible, are usually the first to have psychological breakdowns or commit suicide. It ignores—and here is the greatest crime—the deep and profound humanity of many of the prisoners themselves, who are as caring, intelligent and loving as those outside the walls. It ignores, finally, who we are as a nation, how callous and brutal we are to the dispossessed and how we revel in stories of violence and human degradation. This excitement, and this fictitious narrative of good and evil, is possible only if we see prisoners as less than human. And this is a task perfected to an art at Alcatraz by the National Park Service, and by popular culture. Anyone who truly grasped what took place at Alcatraz, and what is taking place in prisons across the country, would weep.

Advertisement

Square, Site wide

I thought, as I stepped away from the gaggles of tourists and stood alone in an open cell, of the students I teach in prison. How would they have reacted? What would they have felt about the tourists who lapped up the stories of crime and retribution? What trauma and pain would they have experienced upon stepping once again into an isolation cell? My students think of themselves as slaves—under the 13th Amendment prisoners are forced to work for no pay or perhaps for as little as a dollar a day. They see prisons as replicating the power structure of plantations. And listening to the audio-guide stories would, for them, be like a former slave taking a tour of his or her old plantation while being fed tales of shiftless and lazy “Negroes” in the cotton fields and the gallantry of Southern whites.


New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

 
Right 1, Site wide - BlogAds Premium
 
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide
Right 2, Site wide - Blogads
 
Join the Liberal Blog Advertising Network
 
 
 

Like Truthdig on Facebook