a bird and a bottle

Prisons as Tourist Destinations?
May 12, 2007, 2:29 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, is our children learning?, media, news

I love it when the Times avoids real social commentary by sidelining articles in the styles or travel sections. Yesterday, for example, the Times had an article in the Escapes section about prisons. Prisons? In the friday travel section? Well, yes, because it’s not about prisons today, per se, but rather about how prisons of the past have become tourist attractions.

Turns out, prisons around the country are becoming big tourist destinations and, in some places, big business. Alcatraz has, of course, been a big draw for quite some time (and is now owned and operated by the National Park Service). Turns out, the conversion of Alcatraz into a park and museum was the top of a much larger trend. Today, it’s one of many prison parks.

There’s a lot of good that come out of this — particularly, education about life inside a prison and about the errors of the U.S. penological past. But, because these museum/theme park prisons are not often political entities, the lessons that can be learned today are often notably missing. For example, Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison on which the Times article focuses and which was the subject of Dickens’ musings, was built around the idea that rehabilitation could be found only through solitary life. All incarcerated men were in solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. Of course, this proved effective not as a rehabilitation tactic but as a way to ensure that people went insane. Today, in Supermax and other maximum security prisons, people often remain in solitary for months if not years on end. Should we really still believe that this is makes penological sense?

Also, there’s a danger to opening prisons up as theme parks. They become Disneyfied (to borrow a term from SF). Take this example from the NYT article:

At the Crime and Punishment Museum in Ashburn, Ga., visitors can eat lunch at the Last Meal Cafe, which has, the museum’s Web site proclaims, “meals to die for.”

Get it? Yeah. Because wolfing down a greasy burger can help a person really understand the American prison system. Or can help some company make a buck. There’s also this:

In just about every prison tour, there seems to be at least one poster child whose bad behavior helps bolster ticket sales, and the more notorious, the better. Al Capone is featured at Eastern State. The Wyoming Territorial Prison Museum in Laramie, Wyo., which gets 20,000 visitors a year, highlights the fact that Butch Cassidy was imprisoned there for stealing horses.

If Al Capone knew he was Pennsylvania’s Mickey Mouse, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

So what’s the takeaway here? To me, it’s the lost opportunity to really re-examine the failings of American criminal justice. As the article notes, some visitors view the prisons like they do a car accident — it’s impossible to look away. But as SF noted in an email to me, that’s the wrong analogy. The better comparison is to a torture museum, which have become popular around Europe. This stronger connection, of course, exposes the fatal flaw: torture is illegal across Europe while the tortures of the U.S. prison system persist.


1 Comment so far
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Good post. I think that the Eastern State solitary life is only superficially analogous to the solitary confinement of supermax, where rehabilitation is no longer even a stated goal (many if not most supermax prisoners are never getting out of jail).
solitary confinement in the name of “penitence” is bad enough. in the name of order and retribution, it – as you say – belongs in a torture museum.

Comment by professorplum

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