Alcatraz: What We Learned On the Journey

On the 15th of February we visited Alcatraz as part of our course on tourism and authenticity. We found that most tourists expected to explore Alcatraz’s storied history as a maximum security prison.  Indeed we learned much about the prison but also so much more about the island.  When we first arrived on the island Ranger John recommended we watch the informative movie (starring himself of course) on the history of Alcatraz.  We learned that it was once a military instillation and site of a major 19 month long Indian sit-in.

The exhibits on the outside of the theater complimented the knowledge we gained from the film.  We learned that Alcatraz was home to families and children who did not see the terror that the prison holds for most of us.  It is also home to many species of non-indigenous plants and is a heralded as a nature reserve.


However once we got our workout in for the day by climbing 13 stories to the summit of the island where the prison was located we were able to dig deeper into the history of the prison.  Unfortunately, there ended our education on the other aspects of the island.  At that point we worked our way through the maze that was Alcatraz prison with the aid of a guided audio tour.  Previous prisoners and officers led us through the daily life and some of the more notable events that occurred.  In addition to their voices, our experience was enhanced by audio effects such as catcalling by the prisoners down “broadway” and the sounds of struggle during the battle of Alcatraz.

One of our favorite experiences, despite the winds and treacherous conditions, was the vista of San Francisco and the iconic skyline.  However, this is ironic because to the prisoners of Alcatraz, the view of San Francisco represented an unobtainable freedom.

By: Cameron Fleming, Alex Popof, Mary Luck

Stanford University

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5 Responses to Alcatraz: What We Learned On the Journey

  1. Melanie says:

    It’s interesting that you mention that your education about the other aspects of Alcatraz’s history ended with the audio guide tour, I noticed that too. Both the ranger and many of the signs alluded to important occurrences involving Native Americans, the wildlife and environment, and other topics, but any mention of these elements was forgotten on the tour. Those in charge of tourism on Alcatraz possibly chose to focus on the prison side of history because that is the side most tourists come to hear about, but for the tour to be truly authentic, I think that all sides of Alcatraz’s history and culture should be expressed. It’s even surprising that besides major events that occurred at the prison, the details of specific prisoners are almost entirely neglected.

  2. Kate says:

    Did you feel that there was too much focus on the prison aspect of the island or that it was too glorified? Did this detract from the experience in some way? It’s interesting because the island actually has an extensive history itself that started even before the prison came into play. While the prison may be part of the authentic experience, I think that it’s also important to emphasize other aspects of the island as well.
    -Anh and Caroline

  3. Martin C. says:

    The informative movie sounds really interesting. In retrospect, I wish my group had watched it as well to learn about the other layers of Alcatraz’s history apart from its history as a maximum security prison.

  4. Kate says:

    I think it makes sense to some degree that the prison audio tour only covers what the history of Alcatraz as a prison because that structure was only used as a prison. But I agree that it would have been nice if some of the other history had been integrated into the audio tour in some small part or at least more visibly publicized so that everyone did get a broader understanding of the Alcatraz’s entire history.

  5. Jake says:

    It seems as though the informative movie and the exploration of exhibits on the island really helped to compliment the audio tour by providing information on the island’s history, which the audio tour only hints at briefly. I feel that this would have made my own experience a much more informative one had I been able to take part in it.

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