University of York Graduate, aspiring to be a journalist with dreams of one day publishing my own novel.
Published work can be seen at www.theyorker.co.uk and www.yorkvision.co.uk
Imagine the fear and trepidation as you step onto the boat to battle the unforgiving tides of the Pacific. The cool California night air stings as you watch civilization disappearing into the horizon, and San Francisco, your native homeland and beacon of freedom, becomes a mere blip in the distance. It's January 3rd, 1960- your name is Frank Morris and you're on your way to Alcatraz, doomed to spend an eternity in America's most high-security prison.
Fast forward to present day and imagine little old me in the comfort of an Alcatraz Cruises LLC ferry on my way to visit what has now become a wildly popular national park and tourist hotspot. Akin to the majority of the general public, I must confess to being ignorant to the history of Alcatraz Island, San Francisco; I too assumed it served as nothing more than a prison for the lowest reprobates of society. However, after taking a ten minute boat ride across to the ominous-looking island, my misconceptions were soon to be disproven as I began to learn about its colorful history, taking in everything from the incarceration of Al Capone to the invasion of America's Native Indian population and the final, and most thought-provoking exhibit, Life After Murder.
For $60 my tour of Alcatraz included a tour of Angel Island, known by most as the location to which infamous inmates Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers planned to escape. However, the tour was a little restrictive in that it only allowed for two hours on the island of Alcatraz itself; hence I chose to bypass the Angel Island tour and visit the Life After Murder exhibit instead. For those who would rather make the most of their day on the island, I would recommend the day tour tickets for $28, however it's advisable to book a few weeks in advance otherwise you may find yourself lumbered with a more expensive tour like myself which you're inevitably not going to use.
Life After Murder is a free exhibit based upon Nancy Mullane's book Life After Murder: Five Men In Search of Redemption, an account of five men who have committed murder and have since been reintroduced into society. The exhibit takes place in the dining hall of the main prison block, which visitors can peruse after sampling the island's audio tour, which is both informative and realistic, reconstructing real-life situations such as prison riots. Plastered around the dining hall are life size photographs of five men- Jesse Reed, Donald Cronk, Ed Ramirez, Phillip Seiler and Rich Rael. The inspirational shots show the men standing together as a group and as individuals, accompanied by their life stories. Elizabeth Falls' photography is every bit as shocking as it is moving as the viewer tries to come to grips with the fact that these five normal-looking men were once capable of murder.
The men's individual shots inspire a multitude of thoughts; I for one couldn't help but notice the irony that Rich Rael had his parole approved by the man who once played the Terminator. They also make the reader question their own feelings about redemption, a controversial topic which the exhibit tries unrelentingly to challenge: can someone ever be forgiven for murder, and can they truly change? The intimate details of the ex-convicts' lives would make it seem so – many participate in programs to help the less privileged, for example, Ed Ramirez is part of the IMPACT program, counseling young men in juvenile facilities.
Perhaps the most profound part of the exhibit was the 'thought wall', in which visitors are encouraged to write their thoughts on redemption on a post-it and stick it to the wall. The number of post-its which display messages asking whether or not their victims had a second chance is quite over-whelming, and there is a general consensus that forgiveness is not possible. I added my thoughts to the wall by sitting on the fence, and left slightly happier knowing I had contributed my own confused views to a very sensitive issue.
On specific dates visitors can see talks from important contributors to the exhibit, from prison officers to the offenders themselves. Those who think they might be a little too sensitive however should avoid these dates, and simply enjoy Alcatraz for what it is. Having spent a day on the island I left with a whole new perspective on the island and its history. As the speakers on the 'Escapes' tour said themselves, the worst part of Alcatraz was being able to see the island of San Francisco in the distance. For me, however, this was the best part, as I boarded the boat contemplating my visit, equipped with a new-found respect for freedom.