† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The Rock, Reclaimed
by nancy a heitzeg
Some day when i am not 10,000 Light Years from Home and wind- swept, i will have more to say about Alcatraz. The island turned fortress, turned brutal end- of -the -line Federal prison, turned wildly popular National Park – referred to recently as “prison as Disneyland.” Much has been said already, much remains still buried in creases of the thick files of men who served there, dutifully read/coded by me and graduate student comrades for a man who refused to understand. Simultaneously sensationalized and trivialized, Alcatraz remains an enigma, seen by so many millions, yet eternally shrouded in ubiquitous fog.
It is clear that this was a prison, but i wonder how those who come from other less locked up nations or who don’t think about mass incarceration every day see — if they do — the connection to now. The museum exhibit on Federal Prisons conveniently ends at 1991, and there is a prevailing sense that all this is past and far away, in a bygone era of gangsters and great escapes. Even a major art installation on political prisoners by Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei somehow masks the scope of the American Gulag. Amongst only a handful of USA prisoners noted in the multimedia installation, you can, for example, write a postcard to Chelsea Manning but none to Leonard Peltier.
But maybe, despite the billing, Alcatraz is really no longer even a prison at all – it has been reclaimed. First by the American Indian Occupation – still in evidence by writing on the walls. But reclaimed by Nature too. Every time i have been there i am struck again by the utter defeat of past evil, erased now by the succulent gardens, the surprise of a hummingbird, the brilliant blooms, the bright banana slugs that line the rocks. Alcatraces is left to its’ namesakes, to the rule of the sea birds, who, as in so many ancient abandoned places, oversee all to the last detail. Even unto the ferry ride out. They must make sure you have left there, and only willingly – if ever – return.
May this be a metaphor for the entirety of this Prison Nation.
Let it be so.