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Alcatraz: A Prison as Disneyland

By       Message Chris Hedges     Permalink
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Reprinted from Truthdig


Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, USA.
(image by Stock Photo, Shutterstock)
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SAN FRANCISCO -- I took the ferry from Pier 33 on San Francisco's Embarcadero to Alcatraz. I stepped onto the island from the gangway, walked up the hill to the old prison entrance and was given a portable audio guide. I spent two hours going through the corridors and cells where horrific suffering and trauma crushed human beings. Alcatraz purportedly had the highest insanity rate of any federal penitentiary of its era.

I was regaled through the headset with stories about famous Alcatraz inmates including Al Capone, Robert "Birdman" Stroud and George "Machine Gun" Kelly, escape attempts, the 1946 armed uprising that was ruthlessly put down by the Marine Corps, and intrepid FBI agents who hunted down the nation's most notorious criminals and brought them to justice. In this binary, cartoon narrative of good guys and bad guys, of cops and gangsters, even the repugnant J. Edgar Hoover was resurrected as a virtuous symbol of law and order.

At the end of the tour -- 5,000 people a day, some 1.4 million a year, visit the prison -- we were funneled into the gift shop. It was possible to buy T-shirts, replica blue prisoner shirts, replica tin prison cups and other Alcatraz souvenirs. We were encouraged to take cards from a wooden rack and mail them to foreign governments on behalf of selected prisoners of conscience. The message was clear: In the United States those in prison deserve it; in foreign lands they are imprisoned unjustly. The Disneyfication of Alcatraz is the equivalent of turning one of Stalin's gulags into a prison-themed amusement park. Prisons are institutionalized evil. And whitewashing evil is a moral monstrosity.

The Alcatraz narrative as presented by the National Park Service ignores the savagery and injustice of America's system of mass incarceration, in which we today imprison 25 percent of all the world's prisoners although Americans are only 5 percent of the global population. It ignores our decades-long use of torture, isolation and trauma to turn prisoners into psychological cripples. It ignores that most prisoners are poor and never had adequate legal defense. It ignores how people of color in our urban "internal colonies" are worth nothing on the streets but, in cages, each generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year for corporations. It ignores that prisoners are repeatedly punished and given longer sentences not for crimes they committed while free but for amorphous infractions such as "disrespect" and "agitation" done in prison. It ignores the prison system's one-sided "justice" that denies prisoners a fair hearing. It ignores that a guard is God, that he or she can verbally and physically abuse a prisoner without repercussions. It ignores that prisons are despotic fiefdoms. It ignores the daily humiliation, despair and pain of those trapped inside. It ignores that prisoners who initially believe in the system, who think justice is possible, are usually the first to have psychological breakdowns or commit suicide.

It ignores -- and here is the greatest crime -- the deep and profound humanity of many of the prisoners themselves, who are as caring, intelligent and loving as those outside the walls. It ignores, finally, who we are as a nation, how callous and brutal we are to the dispossessed and how we revel in stories of violence and human degradation. This excitement, and this fictitious narrative of good and evil, is possible only if we see prisoners as less than human. And this is a task perfected to an art at Alcatraz by the National Park Service, and by popular culture. Anyone who truly grasped what took place at Alcatraz, and what is taking place in prisons across the country, would weep.

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I thought, as I stepped away from the gaggles of tourists and stood alone in an open cell, of the students I teach in prison. How would they have reacted? What would they have felt about the tourists who lapped up the stories of crime and retribution? What trauma and pain would they have experienced upon stepping once again into an isolation cell? My students think of themselves as slaves -- under the 13th Amendment prisoners are forced to work for no pay or perhaps for as little as a dollar a day. They see prisons as replicating the power structure of plantations. And listening to the audio-guide stories would, for them, be like a former slave taking a tour of his or her old plantation while being fed tales of shiftless and lazy "Negroes" in the cotton fields and the gallantry of Southern whites.

To anyone who has worked or been in a prison, the physical and psychological structure of Alcatraz -- where there was no attempt at rehabilitation and usually a fifth of the population of about 250 was rotated in and out of isolation cells -- is chillingly familiar. Prisoners as soon as they arrived at Alcatraz were forced to strip and stand naked before the guards. This ritual, repeated daily in prisons across the country, is primarily a rite of humiliation, a way to deny prisoners their dignity. Prisoners must be broken. Forcing prisoners to stand naked before the guards begins the process. Those who resisted authority in Alcatraz -- and resisting authority often meant merely talking back to a guard -- were thrown into isolation cells known as "the Hole." This too is a contemporary experience.

In Alcatraz on the bottom tier of the three-tier D Block were four isolation cells. I walked into one. This is where men were locked for up to 19 days in total darkness, denied a bath and had no change of clothes. The toilet was, for a long time, an eight-inch hole in the floor. The prison often reverberated with the screams of inmates being beaten by guards in darkened isolation cells in D Block. And when those in isolation were released they were often disoriented and psychologically impaired. Many, weak and barely able to walk, were taken directly to the prison infirmary, suffering at times from pneumonia after sleeping for over two weeks on wet concrete. There were some who never left the Hole alive.

At Alcatraz there was one place worse than the Hole -- the dungeon. It was not on the tour. Prisoners, if they were not broken in isolation, were hauled to a staircase in front of A Block that led downward to a heavy steel door. Behind the door were the old gun ports from the prison's days as a fortress and later an Army prison that held Native Americans who had resisted being herded, and, during World War I, conscientious objectors. Prisoners were stripped and chained to the wall in one of two rooms near the old gun ports. They were given a bucket for a toilet that was emptied once a week. They were fed primarily bread.

The psychological destruction of prisoners was common, as it is in today's prisons. Capone, who suffered from dementia caused by syphilis and compounded by abusive treatment, was reduced to idiocy. Guards reported finding him crouched in fear in the corner of his cell or lying on his cot weeping. At the end of his time in prison he sometimes babbled in unintelligible sounds and was incontinent. He would sit on his cot for hours in a near-catatonic state or get up at night and manically arrange and rearrange his magazines, repeatedly dress and undress or make his bed over and over.

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Another prisoner, Rufe Persful, suffered from frequent delusions -- he claimed there was an alligator in his cell. He attempted on several occasions to make a noose out of his sheet. He eventually took a hatchet off the side of a prison fire truck and nonchalantly hacked four fingers from one of his hands in the view of the guards. He also had intended to hack off his feet and his other hand, he told the deputy warden later in the infirmary. He was not declared insane by the prison authorities.

Joe Bowers, who robbed a post office of $16.63 and was sentenced to 25 years, cut his throat with a piece of glass from his eyeglasses but survived. He repeatedly butted his head against his cell door. He was shot to death when he partly scaled a fence in front of guards and ignored warnings to climb down.

Ed Wutke committed suicide by using the blade of a pencil sharper to cut his jugular vein.

The park service omits these stories, and many more like them, from the tour.

If an inmate did not have a prison job at Alcatraz he spent 23 or 24 hours a day in a cell, a practice that remains common throughout the U.S. prison system.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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