The uncomfortable tourist: Juxtapositions of Alcatraz


By Kerry Feeney B.E.S., B. Arch, MAA, LEED AP


The visit to Alcatraz

In the Fall of 2016, I visited Alcatraz. As a Canadian architect with a specialty in justice architecture, I was excited to visit the historic facility. I anticipated that I would feel inspired upon reaching “the Rock”. Instead, I felt uncomfortable.

Alcatraz is an iconic place of confinement; it’s interesting to note that even the island’s earliest inhabitants found it unsettling and ideal as a place for punishment:

Long before Alcatraz became home to some of the most notorious outlaws in the country, it was known as a place to be avoided by Native Americans who believed it to contain evil spirits. These Native Americans, called the Ohlone, often utilized the island as a place of isolation or banishment for members violating tribal laws. [1]

The Spanish missions in California resulted in a step decline of the Ohlone population.  Eventually, in 1859, the island became a military fort, as it is prominently sited at the gateway to the San Francisco Bay and well-positioned to protect it. Later, it transitioned to a military jail and eventually became the famous federal facility where they housed the so-called “Worst of the Worst” of the time.  

In 1972, Alcatraz became a National Park. It now gives people a “safe” glimpse into prison life in a safe setting.  The island has become host to a kind of ‘detention tourism’, where visitors can take audio tours to see where infamous murderers slept and ate.  But that’s not what was bothering me.

The history of Alcatraz Island as a site of occupation by “Indian” protesters interested me the most. Why did they pick this un-serviced, wind-swept land to reclaim in the Fall of 1969?  Isn’t Alcatraz a place people want to escape, not claim for their own?  Why was the juxtaposition of this Indigenous occupation against the backdrop of the notorious Federal Prison so poignant to me?  Why did this place trouble me so much? I carried these questions heavily on my tour that day.

Image of the water towerPicture of the US Pentitentiary sign, with

The reminders of the occupation are immediate. As we disembarked from the ferry, we were greeted with a historically preserved (yet altered) graffiti-ed sign that reads in red-painted letters, “Indians Welcome”.  Normally, the word “Indian” is hard to see or hear; It’s a rude relic of colonization.  Here, forty-eight years ago, a people were reclaiming it as their own. But the most prominent message is on the belly of the high water tower.  It is emblazoned with the newly restored words, in the same red paint and lettering: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land”. These are just two of the more noticeable traces of the occupation, but it was more than the word “Indian” causing me unease.

Why was this old, remote abandoned prison on poorly serviced land (with no water or electricity) used as a place for Indigenous protest?   Would it not have been more effective to protest in the heart of San Francisco? The 1969 Alcatraz Proclamation, explains:

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man's own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations, in that:

1. It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
2. It has no fresh running water.
3. The sanitation facilities are inadequate.
4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
5. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
6. There are no health care facilities.
7. The soil is rocky and non-productive and the land does not support game.
8. There are no educational facilities.
9. The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.

Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians. [2]

With this logic in mind, it was on Alcatraz that the Indigenous peoples hoped to repurpose the former-prison buildings to create a cultural center, or perhaps a small university devoted to Native Studies.  The take-over lasted 14-months and ended when the protesters were forcibly removed by the federal government.  Sadly, this list of nine issues experienced in 1969, is identical to issues faced by Indigenous Canadians on many reserves today.


Meanwhile in Canada…

In Canada, our correctional system is significantly overrepresented by Indigenous people who have been victimized by a history of systematic abuses dating back to the era of the earliest European settlers. Indigenous people make up 4.3% of Canada’s population but 25% of the incarcerated population. [3] (These percentages vary widely across Canada, ranging from 81% in Saskatchewan to 1% in PEI. [4])

A news report in Maclean’s magazine provides context: “In the U.S., the go-to example for the asymmetric jailing of minority populations, black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. In Canada, the Indigenous incarceration rate is 10 times higher than the non-Indigenous population—higher even than South Africa at the height of apartheid. In [the province of] Saskatchewan, if you’re Indigenous, you’re 33 times more likely to be incarcerated.” [5] Here at the ruins of arguably the most notorious prison in the States, preserved fragments still echo the Indigenous cause.  

At Alcatraz, the struggle of the Indigenous people is presented in the past tense, as part of a larger archaeology of the site, as a history lesson about a protest that began an empowerment, that seems to have lost relevance today.  But unfortunately, the juxtaposition of Indigenous peoples and the prison system is the current reality in Canada.  The plight of the indigenous people is seriously relevant in our Justice system and far from a fact presented within historical tourism.

The Canadian Correctional system has stated that the over-representation of Indigenous inmates is partially due to the trauma, and resulting criminogenics, created by the government-mandated residential schools implemented in the late-nineteenth century, where 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in church-run facilities where as many as 6,000 children died and even more were sexually and physically abused. These schools have had generational effects and were only shut down in the 1990s. 

However, residential schools were just one part of historical oppressions of First Nations people that have contributed to what the Canadian government has recognized as a cultural genocide. Canada’s dirty secret was absolutely bothering me while I visited Alcatraz.  Understanding these issues and realities are the constant ethical struggle that a justice architect needs to weigh as they design for an incarcerated Indigenous people in my home and “native” land.

The experience of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian Justice system is grim:

In prison, Indigenous offenders serve much harder time than anyone else. Indigenous inmates are placed in minimum-security institutions at just half the rate of their non-Indigenous counterparts. They are more likely to be placed in segregation, accounting for 31 per cent of cases; and, once in isolation, they’ll spend 16 percent more time there. They account for 45 per cent of all self-harm incidents. Nine in 10 are held to the expiry of their sentence, versus two-thirds of the non-Indigenous inmate population. They are more likely to be restrained in prison, to be involved in use-of-force incidents, to receive institutional charges, to die there. [6]

There are serious disparities that need to be rectified and much reconciliation that needs to occur. These issues fuel the importance for architects to understand the Indigenous struggle in Canada and address it through justice architecture as sensitively as possible.



Figure 4:  WCC Multi-denominational spiritual space.  Exterior Figure 3:  WCC Multi-denominational spiritual space.  Interior.

For instance, if we accept the demographic is not going to change soon, our correctional centres could retain some proximity to remote First Nations communities to address resonating issues of abandonment and isolation within families. Facilities need to incorporate flexible infrastructure and programs for Indigenous cultural spiritual healing such as smudging [7] rooms and sweat lodges [8].

The Women’s Correctional Centre (WCC) in Headingly, Manitoba is an example of a culturally sensitive facility meeting the needs of a diverse population near an urban centre.  At the heart of WCC is a tyndall-stone-clad rotunda with “poles” at each of the cardinal points, dressed in local elm on its interior.  This room is just as comfortable as a smudging space as it is an altar at the end of a Christian nave (see Figures 3 & 4).

Instead of traditional models of incarceration, the programs of government and community run Aboriginal Healing Lodges [9] such as the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Maple Creek, Saskatchewan or the O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi Healing Lodge in Crane River, Manitoba should be studied, not only within the federal system, but provincially as well.  This approach would be particularly useful in the Prairies where the incarceration rate of indigenous peoples is the highest in the country. 

Canadian courthouses should likewise consider incorporating Indigenous courtrooms and mediation spaces.  These designated spaces would create a process for Justice that is fairer and less foreboding. 

The New Westminster Provincial Courthouse, in British Columbia, has fostered a First Nations Courts, where Judge Marion Buller-Bennett, a member of the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan— who for starters does not sit at a dais— holds court differently:

Legal jargon is barred. Formalities are not observed. There is no prisoner’s dock, no microphones. Babies, noisy kids, coffee, laughter—all are welcome. Elsewhere, a judge might threaten sanction after an interruption or outburst. Buller-Bennett encourages them. [10]

Figure 7:  NJC:  Courtroom with Qamutiik – a sled Figure 6:  NJC:  Mediation room with igloo inspiration Figure 5:  Nunavut Justice Centre on the Arctic Tundra

Where appropriate, courthouses should address the culture of local Indigenous people, without being distractingly themed.  Nunavut Justice Centre, in the Artic community of Iqaluit, addresses the local culture with exemplary eloquence.  The building is deeply rooted in its place. The sweeping form of the building is reminiscent of Inuit soap stone carvings, yet also considers the problem of large snow drifts in the region .  

The mediation room has a dome and translucent panels that clearly reference igloo construction.  The courtroom theatre is respectfully delineated by a reconstructed Qamutiik -- a sled designed to travel on snow and ice, built according to traditional Inuit design knowledge. The courtroom also has bench seating, not to imitate church pews, but as a considerate gesture to accommodate the heavy parkas worn by the people.


Final Thoughts

One day, I would like to tour a Canadian correctional centre, as a historical landmark (or park) and hear about the struggles of the indigenous peoples in the past tense.  Regretfully, I know this will not happen in my lifetime—and that creates further unease.  But all in all, on a beautiful fall day, on the historic island in the San Francisco Bay, with an audio guide and camera around my neck, I had the privilege to experience Alcatraz—if only as an uncomfortable tourist.  And although I have better pinpointed the reason for my restlessness here, it has not subsided.   I’d like to imagine that the “evil” spirits the Ohlone thought to inhabit this island were telling me to continue be an architect who advocates for and with, the Indigenous people of Canada’s Treaty Land… and I know I must keep listening.


End notes:





[5] Maclean’s, Canada’s prisons are the ‘new residential schools’:  A months-long investigation reveals that at every step, Canada’s justice system is set against Indigenous people, by Nancy Macdonald, February 18, 2016

[6] Ibid.

[7] The burning of various medicine plants to make a smudge or cleansing smoke is used by most of, Native North American peoples. It is a ritual cleansing.

[8] The sweat lodge is a low-profile hut, typically dome-shaped or oblong, and made with natural materials. The structure is the lodge, and the ceremony done within the structure may be called a purification ceremony or simply a sweat.

[9] Aboriginal Healing Lodges are correctional institutions using Aboriginal values, traditions and beliefs to design services and programs for offenders. They include Aboriginal concepts of justice and reconciliation. The approach to corrections is holistic and spiritual. Programs include guidance and support from Elders and Aboriginal communities.

[10] Ibid.



Kerry Feeney is the current Chair of the AAJ Communications committee. She is also an architect with over 15 years of experience working on complex, major public projects with a focus on high security environments in Courts, Police Services and Corrections. 


(Return to the cover of the 2017 AAJ Journal Q2 issue)