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Gratitude in the Shadow of Darkness

I spent yesterday afternoon in the haunted cell block of Alcatraz with my curious teenagers. The boat ride over the sunny bay with the glistening San Francisco skyline as background belied the intensity of what was to come.   Alcatraz, now a national park, is a shrine to the maximum security holding facility, infamous for being inescapable.  Here was the solution for the mobsters and incorrigible bank robbers who threatened the security of a nation.  Although it occurred to me that, based on today’s standards, many of these same thieves might not even be incarcerated.

Walking the halls of the tiny cell blocks, guided with an interactive audio tour by the voices of previous inmates and guards brought the space to life in ways that were intense and disquieting. The cell blocks themselves remained unchanged, the tiny cubicles with broken toilets, the solitary holding cells in pitch black stood as testimonial to the wasted lives that filled them for years.

The tour included elaborate step-by-step descriptions of the ingenious escape attempts and the violence that ensued at Alcatraz. The desperate inspired brilliance of a few of the inmates who had nothing more than a spoon to create their escape seems more like fiction. And yet after hearing the stories of isolation and soul-desolating punishment,  their attempts to escape were understandable..

Even 5o years later, the smell of the stench and despair in the worn building brought the dark history to life. The one bright spot on the tour was a small block of cells that sometimes received direct sunlight. These were the good times cells and the most coveted of the block.  From here they could sometimes hear music and laughter rolling across the bay from San Francisco. These inmates also had the privilege to make music, paint or crochet.

After an hour of walking in the shadows of the darkness and desolation of these tragic failed lives, I started to wane.  The smell of the place was making me sick and I stopped my audio tour to look around, unguided as I came to the family residences that also lived on Alcatraz island. Here there were photos of garden projects and kids playing. Like everything,  even Alcatraz is a matter of perspective.

I puzzled over why this is the hardest tour ticket to come by in San Francisco. What in us wants to know the despair of inescapable incarceration? While if may make for impressionable crime deterrence, it does not really honor the lost years of lives that the prisoners gave up for their bad choices. It doesn’t uncover the back story that bring people to their bad choices either. Many of the prisoners, when they finally left Alcatraz, had no one and nowhere to go.

I am grateful that we have evolved our system of incarceration since Alcatraz to help prisoners imagine a better future, to cultivate what is good in them. The rest is a true dead end.  Plus, just an hour out there on Alcatraz makes you grateful for every good choice you have ever made…