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What Does Prison Tourism Say About Us?

From Guernica magazine comes a thoughtful article about the import of prison tourism. Writing about sight-seeing at the former Alcatraz federal prison, S.J. Culver notes how the tour reflects changes made in the face of objections from the federal Bureau of Prisons:


In the 1980s, the National Park Service attempted to develop some progressive exhibits addressing not only alternative histories, but also issues like human rights. Strange and Kempa write that lefty rangers developing and promoting these projects faced censure:
Bureaucrats in the Bureau of Prisons charged that [one] display was inaccurate and unduly critical. One exhibit featured barbed wire and electric chairs while another interactive exhibit allowed tourists to listen to former captives talk about corruption and brutality in contemporary prisons. This was an instance when one state agency (National Park Service) had invited outside players to participate in site interpretation, to the dismay of another government department (Bureau of Prisons) driven by its own image-management objectives.
The offending exhibits gradually disappeared. The combined pressure from the Bureau of Prisons and from ticket buyers fascinated with the macabre has resulted in the Alcatraz experience today: twenty-eight dollars for a polished, politically tepid audio tour of the cellhouse, unstructured access to the island’s grounds, and several studiously “unbiased” exhibits on other aspects of the islands history.
But how genuine an experience does one get for those $28?
I begin to think that, if the point of an authentic tourism experience (if such a thing exists) is to understand another condition closely, the Alcatraz cellhouse tour fails. The punishing repetitiveness of incarceration is utterly absent in the carefully paced rise and fall of the yarns on the recorded tour. Worse, there’s no mention of how the Alcatraz cellblock, with its dioramas meticulously re-creating midcentury prison life, might resemble or not resemble a contemporary working U.S. prison. Plenty of the visitors around me seem to think they are witnessing “real” incarceration. I sense my initial impression had more truth than I realized; what we’re taking in is closer to a film set than to county lockup.
Speaking to facilities that evolved from Alcatraz, Culver provides:
When Alcatraz closed in 1963, much of the prison population ended up at a high-security institution in Marion, Illinois. Marion was thought by many to solve the problems of Alcatraz—chiefly the high cost of operation and the inmate behavioral issues. Inmate violence escalated dramatically in the 1970s, however, and Marion soon adopted a control-unit mentality, transitioning to the United State’s first “supermax” facility in 1983. At supermaxes, inmates are kept in solitary confinement for all but one or two hours per day. Twenty-five thousand U.S. prisoners are currently kept in near-continuous isolation at such institutions. Twenty-five thousand. These are not always the prisoners who have committed the most heinous crimes; often, they’re simply the ones who have adjusted most poorly to life in a correctional facility. Some inmates have been in isolation for more than a decade. Studies of long-term isolation have shown strong correlations to mental instability and incidences of psychosis.
There are no tourists at places like Marion, which now houses a communications management unit (CMU), where the mostly Arab-Muslim prisoners’ phone calls, emails, and visits are severely restricted and monitored daily. Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist serving a sentence for domestic terrorism, writes for the Huffington Postthat the Marion CMU is “a punitive unit for those who don’t play ball or who…express political beliefs anathema to the [Bureau of Prisons] or the U.S. government.” Another facility, Florence, which opened in Colorado in 1994, was built from the ground up to be a supermax. It’s often called “the Alcatraz of the Rockies.” All prisoners inside are housed in 86-square-foot cells; hunger strikes and suicide attempts are not uncommon. The prison operated for thirteen years before allowing select members of the media inside in 2007. The Bureau of Prisons has a history of refusing to cooperate with the press and denying scholars access to inmates at institutions like Marion and Florence, a denial which prevents research both on the effects of solitary confinement and on the etiology of crimes like terrorism. Limited access also curtails the public’s information. Limited information makes it easier for prisoner’s rights to go on being abused, day after day, week after week, year after year.
Such considerations lead Culver to question society’s use of imprisonment as a response to crime:
The reasons for ignoring prisoners are easy to understand: they’ve had a hand, sometimes more, in their fate. As my mother will say to me later, at dinner, by way of indicating she’s had enough of this line of conversation: “Well, I don’t know, those were some pretty bad people who did some pretty bad things.” It is true; prisoners are not usually precisely good. Often they are thieves, murders, rapists, embezzlers, terrorists. Yet we continue to think of ourselves as good when we inflict suffering back on these men and women. A start would be for us to recognize the hypocrisy of our own beliefs.