This blog is part of an exchange between students at Stanford and CCNY, for their studies in the rhetoric of architecture, space and tourism
Alcatraz, a military prison off the coast of San Francisco, held those considered to be the “most dangerous” prisoners until its closing in 1963. Today, visitors to the prison are able to see the site known as “The Rock.” During our tour, we encountered contradictory statements regarding the island’s history. We were given the impression that the National Park Service wanted to strike a balance between authenticity and commercial interests while informing the tourists of the island’s history. Although there were many components to the island, it was clear that the main attraction was the prison. As soon as we entered it was apparent that everyone was expected to take the audio tour, so we made a uniform procession to the beginning of the tour.
The tour began with a series of typical prison-like sounds such as the slamming of cell doors and orders from the guards to the prisoners. The audio tour was led by actual guards and prisoners from the island. Hearing accounts of the prison from those involved gave us a feeling of authenticity and made visitors feel as if they were getting the real story. As we were led to different wings of the prison, guards described their personal experiences in Alcatraz. They spoke of their fears and the impact that Alcatraz had on their lives. We got the impression that Alcatraz was not just an everyday prison but a prison that provided a unique experience to everyone within it. Prisoners described the dreary lives they lead at the beginning of their stays at Alcatraz. However, they also stated that cells later on became their homes. The prisoners informed us that they felt as if they weren’t humans and that doing everyday activities like going outside and receiving letters were special privileges.
When reflecting on our experience we noticed that the audio tour affected our interaction with the space. We were given a set path to take and we followed this path without question. There was no room for interpretation since the background of every location was given to us directly from someone who we were made to believe truly knew the prison. Although this made the tour seem more authentic, it also created a distance between us and the prison space. This was countered then by personal accounts that made us feel sympathetic towards the guards and prisoners.
– Christina Bax, Rosalva Gonzalez, and Brenda Benavides