A Priori Concerns
Prior to the tour, the organizers (Keramet, Lori Sexton, Jenn Sumner, and I) as well as several CRN members had raised some concerns and apprehensions about the tour: would it be ethical? Recent scholarship has emerged to analyze and also to question the rise of prison tourism (and "dark tourism" more generally), and this literature helped to frame our thoughts.
Some prison tourism, at least in the United States, has been around (at least) since I was a child (i.e., the 1980s), although it has changed over the years and become far more common. Most notably, Alcatraz Island, the site of the famous federal penitentiary, became part of the US National Park Service (as a national recreation area) in 1972 and has been a tourist attraction since 1973:
The National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public for the first time in October 1973. Visitors had never been allowed on the island before, and the response was overwhelming – more than 50,000 people visited Alcatraz during the first year it was open. Historians estimated this was more people than had set foot on the island during all of its previous recorded history. (From Alcatraz Cruises)Ironically, one of the best moments that captures the absurdity of this is a line from a Michael Bay movie about The Rock---when Sean Connery's character, John Mason, a man formerly incarcerated at Alcatraz who long ago escaped but who since has been kept in isolation (and thus away from current events), exclaims, "The Rock has become a tourist attraction?" In the movie (no spoiler alert here), the tourists visiting the island are taken hostage, becoming (short-term) prisoners themselves, and federal authorities have to break in to Alcatraz, with John Mason's help.
The prison I study, Eastern State Penitentiary, is another prison museum, operating since 1994. Personally I am extremely grateful to be able to visit the prison: it was opened in 1829 and my research ends in the 1910s, so its physical existence is not guaranteed. Additionally, back when my dissertation was more ambitious and I was planning to examine Auburn State Prison in New York, I ran into problems with gaining access to a functioning prison: even photographing the prison brought a threat of arrest, the demand that I delete the photos, and some nasty words from the guards on duty. Consequently, the opportunity to walk around behind the Eastern's 30-foot-high walls and see the cells and their attached "gardens" is very useful. At the same time, the commercialization of the prison and the site's emphasis on salacious tidbits (Al Capone's cell, ghost tours, etc.) makes me a little queazy. Apparently, it also makes the prison museum staff a little queazy. In her fantastic book, Culture of Punishment, Michelle Brown captures some of the compromises prison museum curators make, recognizing that things like the ghost tours that are so popular that they fund other, more historic endeavors like restoration and the educational components of these tours. The curators of Eastern, moreover, seem to be more sensitive than most and have endeavored to use their tourist attraction to focus attention on mass incarceration. Through a number of artistic and informational exhibits (e.g., Prisons Today), they have provided a fantastic service of public education, reaching many more people than (for most of us) our research will. Still, some of these efforts have also straddled the line between salacious and useful, education and entertainment. A recent installment of the Searchlight Series, which is generally aimed at awareness, was advertised on twitter, "Join us tomorrow for The Searchlight Series: Yoga in Prison. Bring your own mat!" There has also been a strange trend of doing artistic photography, especially including ballerinas, at these sites, including Eastern and Pentridge (Australia).
Prison Tours: What the Literature Says
However, these prison museums exist on the site of long-since defunct prisons. Alcatraz closed in 1963 and Eastern in 1971. Prison tours, like the one we did, are also available at functioning prisons, and as such raise even greater ethical and empirical issues. First, there is the question of whether what one sees on the tour is at all representative or whether the tour is staged in some way and thereby serves the interests of prison authorities. This is a point that goes back to Goffman (1961), but has been raised again by a number of scholars because so many of us, in light of diminished access to prison facilities, are turning to prison tours for data collection. One of the earliest examples of this move is Wacquant's (2002) visit to the LA County Jail; following his description of that visit, he calls for more prison ethnography. Since then, his article, and other uses of carceral tourism has been critically discussed by a number of skeptical scholars who raise important questions about staging---see for example work by Justin Piche and Kevin Walby (BJC, Howard J.), who argue that rather than "knowledge-producing," tours are often scripted and avoid revealing what prison life is really like. A similar point is made by Dey (2009), a formerly incarcerated person. He emphasizes the need for "first-person accounts" from prisoners themselves. Echoing Piche and Walby, he explains the prisoner's perspective:
I find tours to be hypocritical because I experience them from afar. Since I often hear about them after they have passed, I am left with the feeling some fraud has been perpetrated. Those who operate the Gulag Archipelago have their view and we have ours. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Often the truth is lost due to layers of denial, rhetoric and misdirection. The problem is that we never get the chance to participate in the debate. They get to shape the direction of the ‘dialogue’. (Dey, 120)To this end, he makes two recommendations for which prisoners tourists should speak with:
In order for a tour to become a viable research tool, concerned parties
must be given confidential access to a wide range of prisoners. (Dey, 121)
Every prison has a department that handles prisoner grievances. One ofUnderlying Dey's emphasis on communicating with prisoners is a concern with prisoners' dignity. More than collecting reliable data, prison tours also must respect the dignity of the people whose lives they are disrupting or taxing. Wacquant raised a similar issue, noting, "I can’t tame the nauseating feeling of being a voyeur, an intruder into this plagued space." Prisoners are necessarily subject "the permanent and pervasive gaze of others" (378) and prison tours contribute to, even exacerbate, this condition.
the most direct paths to uncovering the realities of any correctional facility
can be found in these ‘appeals’. These litigants who file these grievances
are an excellent source (Dey, 122)
Prison Tours: Our Concerns
Prior to the tour, we circulated a few of these articles to the group of confirmed tourgoers. We anticipated having a conversation on the bus to and from Angola---one way would discuss the ethical issues our presence raised and the other way would discuss the history of the prison to better contextualize what we were seeing. Unfortunately, the bus was loud and nauseating, so there was no way to have a large group discussion. Nevertheless, the articles provided us with a dual set of concerns: (1) was what we would see be a relatively accurate snapshot of life on Angola (to the extent that any snapshot can be informative given the diversity of experiences within prison), or would it be a highly scripted, apologetic, or gloating account of the prison, and (2) would we be able to respect the dignity of the men incarcerated at Angola or would our tour involve at some point (for example) a voyeuristic moment during which we might see men in cages like animals, unable to talk back and unable to escape our gaze?
More generally, for several of us, there was also a concern about our own motives for going on this tour---was it really to be social scientists interested in seeing first-hand one of the institutions we study in order to have a better appreciation for and knowledge of our subject, or was it puerile curiosity. Keramet Reiter captures this tension in her reflection:
As a prison scholar, I have been inside prison and jail facilities across the United States and Europe. Sometimes I enter to conduct interviews with prisoners or staff, for research or advocacy; sometimes to assess a new facility or program; other times to take a group of students to educate them about conditions of confinement. I hesitate to use the word "tour" to describe how I enter prison facilities because the phrase has become charged in prison scholarship, where prison tourism is (rightly, I dare say) condemned as a potentially voyeuristic visit to an institution that is transformed into a human zoo by the tourist's gaze. In spite of this critique, I find that I learn something new with each prison I visit, and that the visits create unparalleled opportunities to talk concretely with students, colleagues, and the public about the utter inhumanity that pervades so many prisons, especially in the United States. To me, not every outsider's footfall across a prison threshold constitutes prison tourism.
Nonetheless, there are some prisons that are so famous, so integrated into prison lore, that I do simply want to tour them, to see the reality I have read about. Louisiana State Penitentiary, known colloquially as Angola, is one such prison -- so perpetually infamous that I simply wanted to see it for myself. I had visited other "plantation" prisons in Alabama and Georgia, but none with their own rodeo, cinematized death row, or substantial gift shop.Like Keramet, I had a difficult time deciding ahead of time if my motivations were pure. I was certainly excited to visit Angola, but part of me also saw this as a civically important event. Going into the tour, I saw this as an opportunity to observe and then to "testify." One of the many problems with our prison system is that our prisons are out of the way, far from the public gaze, and this makes it easier for them to exist and function as they do.
Prison visitation---in which society's elites toured prisons---has played a hugely significant role in prison history. John Howard gained access to his local county prison (jail) by becoming its keeper, but he thereafter toured the other prisons of Great Britain (and later other countries), writing his findings in a hugely influential book. This book, and Howard himself, was instrumental in slingshotting prison reform in the nascent United States as American elites began to address the "miseries of public prisons" in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Once formed, the early prisons formally allowed visitors---not personal visitors to see incarcerated loved ones, but civic visitors---men, and sometimes women, of good social standing who would procure "tickets" from the prison's "inspectors" (overseers of the warden who set prison policy). Thousands of people a year would visit prisons like Eastern, Auburn, and Walnut Street before them. Part of the reform from colonial jail to proto-prison (and then modern prison) was to open up carceral facilities, previously the fief-like domaine of the keeper, to the public to ensure better governance. In the proto-prison era (1790-1820), penal reformers were given formal visiting power so they could keep the jailer honest (e.g., stop selling alcohol, collecting "fees," or accepting bribes). This formal visiting power diminished with the first modern prisons (1820-1860), but was not extinct. These visits were important in sustaining (even enlivening) an international dialogue about what prisons should look like and whether they were perpetrating unconscionable cruelty. With the professionalization and bureaucratization of prisons in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century---possibly aided by the concomitant growing belief that prisoners at what were now maximum-security prisons (as opposed to the new adult reformatories) were irredeemable, dangerous, born criminals---prisons returned to mini-fiefdoms (well described by Jacobs (1977)) and visitation became heavily constrained except to staff psychologists/sociologists/criminologists, although even their positions (in light of Jacobs' work) may have been tenuous.
With the diminished access academics (and journalists) have to prisons since the 1970s, the potential for abuse and even the continuation of questionable but legal policies widens. Angola, in particular, is such a notorious prison, part of me is surprised it is as tourable as it is (although most visitors probably stop at the rodeo). Consequently, although leery of the possibility that the tour would be laden with propaganda and highly selective, I thought of this as an ethically important action, part of engaged citizenship. Of course, another part of me wondered whether I was deluding myself and simply providing a moral justification for an otherwise base desire.
Overall, I think our tour was as ethical as we could have hoped for. First, our tour guide was a guard rather than an incarcerated person, but overall he did an excellent job. With the exception of the moment in the death penalty exhibit at the end of the tour, he avoided presenting the prison in a scintillating way. He did not tell us of any major instances of violence or of types of contraband collected from the prisoners---the sorts of stories prison museums collect. Instead, he provided in monotone a mixed, fact-heavy account of the prison. If anything, he seemed aware of the enormity of the facts he presented (the number of prisoners, the average sentence, the wage structure), and paused after each to let them sink in---or perhaps that was just his speech pattern.
There were times throughout the tour that he seemingly gave us the company line---it was at times unclear whether it was his genuine pride in certain characteristics of the prison or that he was parroting the information that some unseen authority wanted to have included: an emphasis on the prison's self-sufficiency, the lack of tax-payer dollars going to the construction of a church on the property, and the quality of the fruits and vegetables grown by the prisoners. Indeed, after lunch, he (knowingly) asked us how we would rate our meals; this could be part of an administrative ploy to showcase how well the prison functions as a farm (perhaps forgetting the connotations of a modern-day plantation), but he seemed genuinely pleased that we were so impressed.
At other times, however, our guide seemed to be fully aware of some of the same issues we found troubling. For example, in answer to a question about what had changed during his several-decades-long tenure at the prison, our guide told us about the significant decrease in violence at Angola and the improvement in guard-prisoner relations. Without using these words, he attributed these changes to mass incarceration: he explained that, these days, it is difficult to find a prison guard who does not have a family member, friend, or neighbor who has gone to (or is in) prison. Essentially, this familiarity helps to humanize prisoners and guards alike, thereby preventing greater animosities; paraphrasing him somewhat, it's harder to be an asshole to someone you know/knew on the outside.
Finally, there were times when our guide seemed dissatisfied with his treatment by the prison---while incomparable to how the prisoners are treated, guards seemed to be similarly subjected to prison authorities' instrumental and exploitative logic. This came up when he told us that everyone (including the guards) gets paid for eight hours each day regardless of how much they actually work and his discussion of his night alone in the wilderness on watch for an escaped prisoner. Interestingly, as far as I can recall, race never came up in our tour. However, when our (African-American) guide pointed out the housing for guards, he noted that he did not live on the prison grounds---something in the way he said this made some of us wonder if perhaps the highly desirable (convenient and cheap) on-prison housing was informally reserved for the white guards.
Overall, I think most of us felt that he was straight with us: He had no agenda, it seemed. His only words that might seem to be propaganda could just as easily been his own genuine pride in the facility. He did not present a one-sided view of things---his disappointment at his own treatment by the prison was apparent. If anything, he seemed like a tired man who had been too long in a loveless marriage---it was too late to extricate himself, and he was aware of his partner's bad qualities, but he also recognized the value of partnership. As he put it at one point, he had retired from the prison's service several years before, but they brought him back in. That we were able to see this side of guard life---that at least one guard was not fully satisfied with his experience---I think is telling. This does not provide us with insight into prisoner life, or an unbridled look at the prison's policies, but it does suggest the tour was not purely a highly scripted show piece. If anything, it was scripted in parts, but even some of these scripts---the monotone description of prisoners' "wages"---did not always put the prison in a positive light.
Second, we were able to speak with some of Angola's inhabitants---the men at the Prison Law Office and again at the barn. The session at the prison law library was not confidential---our guide stayed in the room---and the men had something to lose---it seemed that, although hard, they did find their work meaningful and consequently enjoyable. Even still, it gave us a sense of how under-resourced the prisoners' attempts at rights mobilization and how thin basic legal protections were at this prison (like so many others). It also provided a space for us to respectfully listen to our hosts and let them share with us what information they wanted to share. While I think we got more out of that session than they did, I hope that our presence was a welcome distraction and that some of us are able to one day repay it by working toward improving the resources available to jailhouse lawyers. When we stopped at the barn to see Big Boy, several members of the group were able to introduce themselves and talk with his caretakers. Whether these men were pre-selected to meet with us, we could not know, but I suspect not---it did not seem that many people worked at the barn (thus, if the prison authorities wanted to select those who would put the prison in the best light they had few choices) and we did not stay very long (so selecting might have been more work than needed).
Third, our other interactions with Angola's inhabitants were, for the most part, respectful. Our guide warned us at the outset to not take any photos of the prisoners or their living spaces. I think a lot of us were glad (and surprised) to hear that this was the prison's policy. Additionally, we never walked through the dormitories, through the living spaces themselves, and although we did walk past the dormitories, we could not see into them, beyond the shadowed outlines of men in some places. In this way, I think we respected their privacy. We did walk past prisoners in common walkways or waiting on benches: in these situations, the men could not escape our gaze---we were there and they were there, and they could not exactly walk away or head off into a different area. However, even these situations were semi-interactive: I think everyone or almost everyone greeted the men, nodding, smiling, say hello or good morning, etc., which was often returned. Ironically, walking through these areas, it felt like we were the novelty, the ones at whom many gazes were directed, particularly from the direction of the dormitories where we could hear (mostly) unseen men acknowledging our presence.
I certainly do not think that we saw a full cross-section or real sense of prison life from this visit. While the tour itself was three or four hours, we spent most of that time on the bus and learning about the prison---the farm and its history. There were several different types of housing units and we only saw one. I was disappointed when our visit with the prison law office staff ended---it felt far too brief even though it was probably 30 or 40 minutes.
Despite these limitations, I do think we learned a lot: in some cases, we saw first-hand things that we had read about or studied, but seeing them in person made a difference. For example, we knew that Angola was home to the largest lifer population in the country---we know that most of the people who go there are probably going to die there. But there was something about stepping off the bus and seeing these older men taking care of a horse and having such pride in him, that helped me to realize that this was their life---there was probably nothing more for them. There are other parts of the tour that were more physically affective: it was only June 1 and yet the heat and humidity made us so tired that thinking about working in the fields for eight hours (or more) a day, and doing that for decades, seems unimaginable. Seeing Angola's natural borders for ourselves and realizing just how thick the foliage was also helped to explain why escape attempts were so rare and why fences were unnecessary---growing up on the West Coast, there was nothing in my cognitive frames of reference that would make this fact make sense. Overall, though, I think going to Angola gave me more questions than answers.
As for the question of why we were there, and whether we were there as tourists or scholars, Keramet writes:
At Angola, I felt more like a prison tourist than I ever had before. Maybe it was the commodification of beanie baby dogs and country music videos. Maybe it was being on the school bus that shuttled 25-or-so-of-us around the prison grounds, past housing units and barns and stables and rows of corn. Still, the images of the visit, from prisoners talking with us in the law library, to the prisoners grooming the horses in the stables, to the museum of execution implements, to the white barn full of dogs up on the hill have mingled with snapshots from Dead Man Walking, the Ole Red music video, and the annual prison rodeo, layering a raw lived reality into a cinematic imagination.
I, and busloads of other prison tourists, were lucky to cross the threshold of the prison in the morning, and ride out again in the afternoon. That vast cemetery insistently reminded us that most of the prison's inhabitants can never hope to be so lucky. I keep remembering the sticky, swampy heat that wore me out even as I sat still on the old school bus, and I keep imagining living an entire life in that heat with no hope of any relief, whether in the form of a fan, cool air, ice, or freedom. I'm still not sure whether joining the daily exodus of tourists from Angola raises awareness of the contradictions riddling the commodified, imagined reality of prison life, or just re-legitimizes the institution.Do you have other thoughts---other metrics by which to judge the tour or a different take on the metrics discussed here? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or by emailing me at email@example.com