Critical Criminology / Critical Media Studies / Globalization, Labor, and Economics / Prisons, Torture, and Death Penalty

Making a Profit off Torture

Making a Profit off Torture
Anthony J. Nocella, II

Upon returning from the 2009 American Society of Criminology’s Annual Conference in Philadelphia and having observed tour after tour of scholars heading off to the Eastern State Penitentiary’s (ESP) “Terror Behind the Walls” experience, I started questioning what was going on there. The Eastern State Penitentiary’s website boasts that they have the “1# Haunted House in America.” On the website there are testimonials of how scary the “haunted house” is, different attractions of horror within the prison, videos, coupons, group sales, dinner packages, hotel packages, and of course gear for sale, which includes — t-shirts, Jailhouse Abnormal Cyrus Teddy Scare, shot glasses, mugs, pens that are designed to look like a syringe, and a #1 foam hand. At first I thought it might have educational potential about prison confinement, but moments later I saw that it was making a complete joke and profit off of imprisonment. I became horrified that hundreds of criminologists would visit a prison for this safe and sensational scare. They could go home and tell their war stories of surviving the most frightening haunted house, in a real prison no less.

ESP, like all prisons, is a place where people are tortured and killed. To make a mockery and profit of these individuals is true exploitation. Those tortured and killed in ESP were someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, sister and/or brother. They were sentenced for crimes from petty theft to murder. For many, the prisoner’s suffering is for enjoyment and laughter, not to mention profit. Eastern Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.’s (a non-profit) mission is

to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. carries out these activities using the highest standards in educational and public programming, and in conservation.

I would love to know how they are going to spin making a complete joke of torture into having educational value. How is a haunted house educational? Are they reenacting what those at ESP believe it was like when it was open? If so, they should examine the history a little closer. I would like to know whether Quakers, Benjamin Franklin, the architect John Haviland, or any of the wardens or correctional officers are in some way part of this horror show. Tours, museums, films, and merchandise are parts of the prison industrial complex. Alcatraz and ESP, as well as museums of torture all over the world, are big business and tourist attractions to bring one’s family, school class, church, community group, and friends to, for a manipulated framing of the history of prison and the experience of incarceration.

I recently attended another conference in San Francisco where, when walking down one of the streets in China Town, I saw an Alcatraz prison uniform for sale as a baby’s garment. I pulled out my camera to take a picture, and while doing this overheard someone saying how cute it would look on their child. I wonder how they would feel about the uniform if their child grew up and landed in a state prison for 25 to life. Would it be cute then? Is our society so backwards to laugh and make entertainment off of incarceration and a broken system which tortures and imprisons people, but never provides them any life skills? Oz, Wire, Prison Break, etc. are not educational resources, but glorified television shows of repression and systems of domination. Producers may believe that they are educating the population, while scaring youth from a life of crime, but this strategy is ineffective.

Today, one can arrange tours of active prisons in the U.S. by simply calling the warden. Directed by the warden and correctional officers, these tours are similar to that of zoos – which are degrading, shameful, insulting – and a complete mockery of imprisonment. To truly learn about prison one should not take censored tours, but read prisoner writings, interview prisoners, and talk with former and current prisoners. These tours, such as the “haunted house,” stress how the prison industrial complex is based on profit-making and punishment (i.e., commodification), two activities the U.S. is very well-known for, rather than transformation, healing, accountability, rehabilitation, or education.