Portrayal of Inmates – A Balancing Act

by Eric Feldman, Anna Nti Asare, Gabriel Martinez, Peter Tseng

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 as a tourist attraction possesses the difficult task of presenting its disturbed history in a pleasurable, commoditized package.   As Alcatraz was once America’s prison for the most atrocious criminals and the clinically insane, the actual prison cell was the main tourist attraction.   The prison cell functions not only as a display but also as a space for tourist interaction with Alcatraz.

Upon arriving on the island, a guide equipped with a loudspeaker detailed the rules of the island and directed us towards the audio tour.   In case one failed to follow the guide’s directions, several signs herded us towards the audio tour.   As we made our way into the prison cell, we filed into a single-file line where several attendants provided us with a headset and audio player.

As opposed to simply hearing the history of Alcatraz from one authority figure or an esoteric historian we listen to the actual voices of inmates and officers. We are presented with two types of prisoners some are more easily related to because of their human element while others fulfill our mental prototype of a true criminal – evil, demented, and creepy.

The first type of prisoner seems very relatable. The audience connects with stories of their families, desires to engage with society, and a sense of regret. For example, during the audio tour, the audience is taken to the visitor’s office. Here prisoners had the chance to be greeted by family and friends. Because this was a rare occurrence, prisoners often felt a sense of shock when a visitor was actually going to come. The audio manifests this sense of disbelief in the personal account of one prisoner who has grown accustomed to being identified by his number, instead of his name. The tourist feels the prisoners sense of surprise as he is visited by his sister for the first time. The prisoner was in disbelief that his sister called him by his name, and smiled at him. The tourist is struck by the realization that the prisoner is just another human, he is a son and a brother; he is more than just a number.  At this time in the tour, it is easy to forget the atrocities that the inmates committed.

While the human element of the first type of prisoner contradicts the audience’s notions of an authentic prisoner, the second type of convict lives up to the tourist’s expectations of a hard felon and reinforces the belief that the inmate largely deserves his incarceration.  For example, in one part of the tour, one of the interviewed inmates describes fellow prisoner Alvin Karpowicz, as creepy and bizarre. He says, “We called him Creepy Karpis, and you knew he was creepy because he walked on his toes.”  In a second instance, when the tourists are guided through the cafeteria, the inmate narrator details a prison murder he witnessed. These stories are consistent with the tourists’ preconceived notion of a typical prison inmate—one who is characterized by brutality and bizarreness. It is much easier for the tourists to accept the idea that these people are behind bars.
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