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