On 15th february we visited Alcatraz as part of our course on tourism and authenticity.
Our class made its way to Alcatraz by way of train, bus, and boat. We arrived on the island around 11:15 and we’re given a safety briefing by Ranger John, who warned us about restricted areas on the island and directed us to the prison. We walked up thirteen stories to the prison and then once in the prison entered the shower area to pick up our audio tours. This would have been the first room prisoners would see when they entered the prison.
The audio tour guided us around the prison and was narrated by a series of different guards and prisoners who at one point or another lived on Alcatraz. Commands were given in short barking sentences by the guards, in a tone similar to the one they would have used when dealing with prisoners. This served a dual purpose: The directions were clear and it added a sense of authenticity. It referred to each section using terms the prisoners themselves coined such as “Seedy Street” for the C-D block and “Times Square” for the area near the clock. The tour focused on the everyday life of prisoners and significant events in the prison’s history. During the narrative of the Battle of Alcatraz, the audio tour added sound effects to heighten the sense of drama. This narrative was also enhanced by firsthand accounts given by some of the narrators.
The former prisoners mostly talked about what living in the prison was like. For some, it was just their temporary home, and the time they spent there passed quietly. Others used their time there to improve themselves by using the library’s resources or learning skills such as crocheting or a musical instrument. Still some prisoners could not get past the dehumanization that Alcatraz subjected them to and considered it a living hell.
Although Alcatraz seems to authentically portray the prison life and events, the tour almost completely neglects the history of the island before and after the prison opened and closed. Tour guides and signs alluded to conflicts with Indian occupations and ownership, but did not inform or elaborate on the issues. Additionally, the wildlife and natural elements of the island were not focused on at all. However, one of the most interesting aspects that Alcatraz chose to ignore was the individual, notorious prisoners of the island. The audio tour described specific events and escape attempts, but rarely mentioned the histories and actions of well-known or prominent prisoners such as Al Capone. In many ways the Alcatraz tour provides a good picture of the authentic prison life, but still neglects some important elements of the island’s history.
– Max, Tally, Melanie, Ned