It’s a little heartbreaking that our vacation is well over, and with the exception of a 2 day firm retreat to Cleveland next week (full of meetings, not adventuring), I’m not going anywhere fun in the near future. As is typical after vacation, I returned to a chaotic workload and not nearly enough time to get everything done. Add on top of that the myriad tasks that go along with settling into a new house and selling an old one, I’m surprised I haven’t completely lost my mind. I’m close though.
The one activity I was looking forward to the absolute most on our vacation was our tour of Alcatraz Penitentiary, better known as THE ROCK. I’ve visited San Francisco many times in my life, but never have I had the foresight or organization to buy Alcatraz tour tickets in advance. You can’t just stroll in and buy same-day tickets. They sell out a few weeks in advance. As soon as I knew we’d be spending part of our vacation in San Fran, I booked our trip.
The first part of the tour is the ferry ride over to the island. My kid LOVES all modes of transportation, so she was pretty jazzed to be riding on a boat. The bay is extremely windy, and since it was a hot day, this felt pretty comfortable. The boat ride is only about 10 minutes, which is just enough time for it to be fun, but not long enough to get boring.
We got to the island and had a short orientation about where to find things. I was really hoping to tour the island and prison with a live guide, but instead the tour is self-guided with a headphone device. Fair warning: a self-guided tour with a 3 y.o. who refuses to wear the headphones is torturous. She quickly got bored, and I was NOT about to ditch this activity because she was bored/tired/bratty. So I guided myself through much of the tour, carrying her and gritting through my teeth “You WILL be quiet and behave or so help me.”
Touring the prison was fascinating. Alcatraz is a lot smaller than I imagined. There were only a total of about 1500 inmates who were housed here during its years of operation. The cells of course were very small, and the whole prison was designed in the panopticon model. Back in college, one of my literature professors had a couple lectures on the panopticon, so I was very excited to dust the cobwebs off of my education and feel s-m-r-t.
More than anything, the tour made me sad. The audio tour gave the impression that Alcatraz’ conditions were barbaric and a thing of the past. It suggested that the modern penal model is focused on rehabilitation more than punitive measures. Given several cases I’ve handled recently dealing with inmate civil rights, however, I can tell you that the housing conditions at Alcatraz are fairly reflective of the modern conditions in many restrictive housing units (and in some ways Alcatraz may be a more comfortable living situation, in light of the Department of Justice’s recent findings concerning the Pennsylvania DOC’s use of restrictive housing on mentally ill inmates.) It made me sad to think that all the tourists don’t realize that these conditions aren’t actually a thing of the past, but actually a view of confinement conditions that still exist.
I was hoping that the tour would be ghost-story spooky, but unfortunately there were no such scary tales. Nonetheless, it was a tour absolutely worth taking. Had my kid been older and better behaved, it would have been a great opportunity to talk about social expectations, the need for law and order, and also the importance of treating every person with dignity and humanity.