- Prison Public Memory in the Era of Mass Incarceration
“It is estimated that one in ten Australians has a convict ancestor,” reads a panel at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney reassuringly. The government-run museum encourages visitors to embrace incarceration as part of a shared national heritage, suggesting, “Ask someone in your family if you have a convict ancestor.”1 In the United States, as many as one in three people have been arrested; that means tens of millions have friends or family members who have.2 And if you count ancestors? Americans laugh at one in ten. While the carceral state is deeply divided by race, at this point, almost no one lives outside it. Yet imagine the American analogue to Australia’s Historic Houses Trust, the US National Park Service, posing that question at Alcatraz.
Where prison museums in other parts of the world are opening to critique penal systems and humanize those affected by them, Mary Rachel Gould argues that “the prison-turned-tourist attraction makes a contribution to the silent acceptance of mass incarceration in the U.S.” (Sion 268). In her excellent essay on Alcatraz in Brigitte Sion’s Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape, Gould notes that the island prison was opened as a museum in 1972, the dawn of the era of mass incarceration. This coincidence supports Michelle Brown’s argument that “dead prisons reconfigure living prisons, not in a clear chain of direct institutional transformation but in a larger cultural imaginary.”3 As we teeter on the apex of this era of incarceration, it is time to find the connections between the public memories and public policies that have sustained it. A vast number of “death tourism” sites, defined as visits to [End Page 823] sites of violent death, are former prisons and sites of detention, from Alcatraz to Auschwitz. Sion’s brilliant collection moves beyond the eye rolls and snide commentary that dominate many descriptions of such sites, which often stop with pointing out the many obvious ironies produced when trauma and tourism are combined. Instead, Sion’s authors start by taking these sites seriously—their political economy, the contesting constituencies behind their development, and the varied experiences of their visitors. In this way, the collection powerfully demonstrates that death tourism “is complex and deserves serious and thorough scholarship” (6). Michael Welch’s Escape to Prison: Penal Tourism and the Pull of Punishment brings a criminologist’s focus to prison museums and the roles they play in constructing cultural understandings of crime and punishment. Sion’s scholars, paired with Welch’s criminological perspectives, provide new tools to explore the interplay of public memory and public policy, and imagine alternatives.
Literature on the popular creation, representation, and dissemination of history and memory has emerged from wildly dispersed locations, including public history (a largely US concern born from social history movements of the 1960s and 1970s), museum studies (emerging from art history and anthropology), transitional justice (a field of international law concerned with how states confront past crimes as part of transitioning to democracy), hospitality and tourism (concerned with marketing and management), and even some neuroscience (seeking to understand impact by studying visitors’ brain patterns). The works reviewed here further diversify the existing literature’s methodological approaches. The scholars in Sion’s collection are concerned with culture, but from a variety of perspectives: performance studies, drama, visual studies, anthropology, and other fields. Welch, on the other hand, is a criminologist who has written extensively on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States. Whatever their disparate points of entry, both collections ground themselves in a common concept: dark tourism. Popularized by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who are credited with coining the term in 1996, the idea has become a generative framework for a whole generation of travel writing, tourism and cultural studies, an...