Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Alcatraz – The Darkness Within

10th July 2006

Alacatraz prison, officially closed in 1963, sits on an island of 22 acres, surrounded by freezing waters and rapid currents.  Juan Manuel de Ayala, who gave it the name of La Isla de las Alcatreces, “the Island of the Pelicans,” discovered the island in 1775.  In 1850, Alcatraz, better known as “the Rock,” was established as a Federal prison and remained a fortress until modern warfare replaced its usefulness.  Subsequently, Alcatraz housed prisoners from the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, as well as conscientious objectors from World War I.  Perhaps one of the saddest events in the history of Alcatraz was the imprisonment of American Indians.  The crimes, punishable then by hard labor, could hardly be considered evil.  They were simply outcries for rights to freedom from government interference with education, language, and religion.  In 1906, it served as a temporary shelter for civilians escaping the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake. 

Some of the most dangerous and incorrigible criminals in history such as Al Capone, Henry Young, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” spent time for crimes of espionage, kidnapping, murder, and robbery.  For prisoners, the ferry to Alcatraz was the end of the line, a one-way trip for which there would be no return, a descent into what has been described as a “hell hole” to await their fate.  Although many escape attempts were made, none have been documented as successful.  Five prisoners from Alcatraz, however, still remain unaccounted for and are presumed drowned.

Today, tourists, spurred on by the media, the movies, the books, and the history, flock to Alcatraz in huge numbers by the boatloads.  Over one million curious thrill seekers visit Alcatraz each year, certainly not for pleasure and probably with no significant grief or sadness.  Tickets for all-day tours to Alcatraz, including side trips to Sausalito and the Muir Woods, sell for $68.95 for adults, $47.95 for children, ages 5 to 11, and under 5 are free.  The tour includes a short 10-minute ferry ride, free admission to the park and the museum, and a walk around the island.  Other day and evening excursions to Alcatraz are available, as well, ranging in price from $16.00 and up, leaving daily at 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Visitors take a virtual tour of “the Rock” via slide shows, sound clips, videos, and pictures.  There is an eerie feeling of the unforeseen upon arriving at Alcatraz and stepping off the ferry onto the same dock as the prisoners walked.  Immediately opposite the dock, the old barracks building now houses a theater, bookstore, and numerous exhibits within its 10-foot brick walls.  The Guard Tower, with six towers manned at one time by armed guards, has been restored.  Audio headsets are provided for the tour through the Cell Block.  The halls, once filled with the sounds of clanking chains and shackles, are empty and dark.  We see no prisoners reaching out from between the steel bars nor do we hear their cries of anger and pain.  We shudder at the thought of voices echoing from the walls, and yet, we are caught between guilt for feeling empathy and the reality of the evils that once existed.  Leaving the gloom and dark of the Cell Block, we are eager to feel the freshness of outdoors.  The walk along the Agave Trail takes us through the beautiful bird sanctuary and lovely gardens, now flourishing in the California sunshine, and we pause to take in the amazing views across the Bay. 

Alcatraz tours include free entrance to the museum, the bookstore, and walks around the island.  The museum houses a collection of items including artwork and objects made by its notorious inmates, historic photographs, documents, and prison materials from 1859 to the 1969 -1971 occupation by the American Indians of all Tribes.  All types of souvenirs are available in the bookstore, including books, mugs, keys, t-shirts, and even packages of greeting cards.

Returning from one of the Golden Gate’s most popular tourist attractions, we look back at an island now carefully preserved by the National Park Service, a place where spectacular wildlife multiply and thrive and time has erased the fear and grief of years past.  Here, even the once dangerous, man-eating sharks seem to have deserted the waters.  How strange it seems to visit today and find there is so much beauty, where once there was none.  As the sun sets upon the isolation of Alcatraz, a single light from the abandoned lighthouse continues to glow across San Francisco Bay.  Perhaps, we may suppose that it remains a symbol of hope for those who knew and felt the darkness within.
Sharon L. Slayton

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