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The prison that became a celebrity - Curt Yeomans

If we hate the school-to-prison pipeline so much, why did we make a crumbling, former prison into a major tourist attraction?

Oh wow, that was a major "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy" moment for me. But, honestly, we talk all of this talk about how the school-to-prison pipeline is such a bad thing, but, then, we're willing to turn around and shell out $26 per person to ride a boat out to Alcatraz Island.

For those who may have been living under a rock (not THE Rock, but just a general, average rock) all of their lives, Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary from the 1930's, to the 1960's. Famous criminals, including Al Capone and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud, were housed in Alcatraz at one point, or another.

Now, it is a tourist attraction, where a visitor can take an audio-guided tour of the jail buildings, and get their pictures taken in solitary confinement. And, boy is it busy with tourists moving around throughout the day.

So, which is it? Is prison life not to be glamorized, or are we just going to make prisons into tourist attractions where we marvel with wide-eyed awe at what life was like for the people who served time in the jails?

If you've never been to Alcatraz, the first thing you need to know is that the buildings are old, and they show it. Once you get off the ferry to get to the island (which is run by the National Park Service, by the way), you get to hear a spiel from a park ranger, who warns you to be back at the dock before the last ferry leaves for the mainland at 6 p.m.

Then, you get to walk up a hillside to the remains of an old 19th Century fort that the prison is built on top of. You watch a little video on the history of the island (including the period in the post-penitentiary period in the early 1970's, when Alcatraz was "occupied" by Native Americans for a hot minute).

So, after you leave the remains of the fort, you continue walking up the hill to the penitentiary building. Once you are inside the building, you get a headphone set, and are told by park rangers to walk around the penitentiary (following directions included on the audio recording you are listening to), and find out what life was like in the prison.

The audio tour includes recordings of the voices of some of the still-living former prisoners and former prison guards, who recount some of their stories from their time on "The Rock." You also get to see a wide variety of flora and fauna that are grown on the island, that were originally planted on the island by the families of prison guards during their stay on the island (the guards and their families lived on the island).

But, it just gets to me, because everyone is always saying we should work to discourage the "school-to-prison pipeline." It is said a lot, in part, because of school students who do end up in jail before they graduate from high school.

It is also said, in part, in response to the people who graduate from high school, but lack a direction in life and (some of them) end up in a life of crime.

Yet, we're going to go snap as many pictures as possible of a prison, so we can go home and tell all of our friends: "Hey, look where I went in San Francisco!"

Somewhere, our rules for life are getting messed up.

Curt Yeomans covers education for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 247, or via e-mail at cyeomans@news-daily.com.