Lessons From the Rock

Alcatraz, an island sitting in San Francisco Bay, may be America’s most legendary prison.

The Federal prison on Alcatraz was closed on this date in 1963. It’s now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a national park. About 500 visitors a day take the short ferry ride from San Francisco to see it.

I’ve been myself a few times; visiting Alcatraz never fails to stir up very strong feelings, especially when I’ve taken the audio tour. The tour is not an overproduced marketing piece narrated by some generic announcer-voice. You hear real stories in the actual voices of former Alcatraz inmates.

The result is immediate, emotional, honest, raw and real. At times, the stories are downright heartbreaking.

I can’t forget the story one former inmate told. It was New Year’s Eve. The prisoners had been locked in for the night and the lights turned out. Because of the proximity of the prison to San Francisco itself (it really is quite close, as the seagull flies) and the particular acoustic properties of fog (it reflects sound), the inmates, sitting in the cold darkness of their cramped cells, could hear the music, laughter and noise of the city’s many parties.

By locking convicted offenders in a prison within earshot and sight of civilized society, we send them a potentially constructive message: you have done something that makes you unfit (perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently) to be part of this society. We continue on with our lives but you do not. Behave according to our society’s laws, customs and mutual agreements and you may again join our society.

Until then, watch and listen from a distance to that which you have lost.

One thought on “Lessons From the Rock”

  1. Love this, Brent. Just went for the first time a few weeks ago and had the same reaction you seem to. It’s a fascinating place with a remarkable history. But it’s hard to avoid the melancholy and feelings stirred up by imagining inmates locked up there for years within sight of this amazing city.

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