The Paradox of Alcatraz

On the 15th of February we visited Alcatraz as a part of our course on tourism and authenticity. As we neared Alcatraz on our ferry boat, our first impression of the building was that it resembled less of a prison than it did a Greek monument hoisted in seclusion upon a hill. Surrounding this building was perhaps the most beautiful view of San Francisco and the Bay Area, complemented with a rainbow in the distance. Once we entered the prison however, what struck us was the stark contrast between the beauty of the outside world and the bleak atmosphere within the prison.

At the start of our tour, we put on a headset and played the audio tour that was prepared for tourists on the island. Upon pressing the start button, we found that we became the prisoners themselves. The audio tour created an authenticity that almost forced the tourist to surrender his or her freedom, just like the prisoners did when they arrived on the island. The audio tour guide, whose narrators were the original prisoners and prison guards, demanded that we follow its way, moving through the prison as not a tourist, but a fellow convict. Along the way, we heard the typical everyday sounds of Alcatraz’s inner workings, from the clanging bars to the general chatter of the convicts. There were also gunshots and screams in rare cases when the narrators described escape scenes.

Meanwhile, we finally began to understand what it feels like to have our freedom constrained. The prison felt like a small city, each area of the prison with its own special name – Broadway, Times Square, and “Seedy” Street. Each of these street names mirrored streets from real cities, trying to make convicts feel at home. The whole experience felt like a joke however. Every time we looked out a window past the hallowed walls of the prison, we saw the beautiful view of San Francisco, a bustling city full of life. The prison narrators recounted their constant longing for a taste of freedom, feeling as though they were being mocked by the stunning view of the outside world. Every New Year, prisoners would even hear the exciting sounds of youthful parties across the water at the yacht clubs in San Francisco. In all, it seems as though we, as tourists, were trapped in the prison surrounded by paradise, so close to freedom in San Francisco, yet so far stuck in the cold waters of the bay. That is the paradox of Alcatraz that prisoners had to face decades ago, and we experienced it first-hand.

~ Tim, Pao, Laura

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7 Responses to The Paradox of Alcatraz

  1. Tally Buckstaff says:

    I like how you compare your experience of Alcatraz with what an actual prisoner would have felt. Do you think the people running the Alcatraz tourism do a good job of making each tourist feel as if they are a prisoner actually experiencing Alcatraz? How would have an actual prisoner’s experience differ?

  2. Pearly M. says:

    I think that you all bring up a really good point about how Alcatraz as an island is an excellent location to enjoy the sights of San Francisco, but Alcatraz as a prison ironically makes that characteristic a taunting jeer at “banished” convicts. It is actually quite curious how Alcatraz’s history may have been drastically altered if it were employed for its aestheticism instead of as a grisly prison spot. I feel like it is a pity that the island had to be marked down with such a grim past, when it could have been used for drastically different purposes.

  3. Ned says:

    Did the fact that the audio guide “ordered” people around add authenticity to the tour? Or would it have been nice to be able to walk around on your own without following a certain path?

  4. Hilary says:

    I found your focus on the emotional aspects of your experience on Alcatraz to be very engaging. By focusing on all of the contrasting elements of the tour and you experience, you give the reader a deeper understanding of what you felt when you were on the island.

  5. Alexandra To says:

    I was really surprised by how restricted you felt by the audio guide, but as I look back at the experience, I would have to agree with you. I’ve used other audio guides before for museums, etc. but this one was definitely more commanding than others. Where this told you exactly where to go, others have allowed me to pick and choose what information to listen to or to skip a chapter to see the next “exhibit.”

  6. Martin C. says:

    I have to agree with Alexandra. When I was on the audio tour itself, I did not really feel as if I was being restrained like a prisoner. But in retrospect, it was quite commanding and restrictive, telling you exactly where to go and what to see.

  7. Mark K says:

    I am in general agreement with the view that the audio guide helped improve the authenticity of Alcatraz. However, I felt it was more appropriate than walking along the cells without a guide since the cells looked the same more often than not and it was helpful for someone to explain the various interesting happenstances and situate them to specific cells such as the escape attempts. More over, I guese getting locked up in one of the cells for a day would be a more authentic experience but I guese it is too ‘authentic’ for everyone.

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