By Elisa Frenkel, Final Year Criminology student
Alcotraz is the latest quirky drinking location found at the heart of London’s iconic Brick Lane and below, a recent review has been provided about ‘London’s first prison-style cocktail bar’ and immersive experience inspired by the San Francisco jail.
“Best cocktail bar experience in London!
Loved the whole experience - from dressing up in prison jumpsuits to being seated in the cells to some incredible cocktails, truly a fantastic experience!”
5 Star rating
TripAdvisor – anonymous reviewer (March 2019)
Since its announcement there has been a variety of responses in terms of how this has been received by the general public. Before Alcotraz, there have been other tours and experiences across the U.K. inspired by crime such as: Jack the Ripper tours, Shrewsbury Prison Ghost Hunts, the Crime Museum in London; but the question to be asked here is, how have we got to this stage of commercialising the prison system for our own entertainment and profit?
First and foremost, an understanding of prisons and their function should be provided. Prisons are a serious sanction for those who have broken the law, with a threefold purpose (Gauke, 2018):
- To protect: the public from the most dangerous and violent individuals.
- To punish: prison deprives offenders of their liberty and other freedoms that the rest of society can enjoy, which some suggest can work as a deterrent to encourage individuals not to engage in criminal behaviour.
- To rehabilitate: prison provides offenders the opportunity to reflect and accept responsibility for their crimes, subsequently preparing themselves for a lawful life upon release.
These three functions are completed behind prison walls away from the public eye, but somehow Alcotraz has been inspired by the real-life Alcatraz - a military and federal prison also hidden from public viewing. There are several reasons for the prisons infamy, it was ‘once home to some of America’s most notorious criminals, with the presence of inmates, like Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud’ (Alcatraz Cruises, n.d.). Today, the island has been restored and companies have utilised the former prison to provide tours which allow customers to ‘step back in time and experience the legendary Island that was ‘one of the most notorious federal penitentiaries in US history’ (Alcatraz Cruises, n.d.). The creator of Alcotraz – Sam Shearman – claims it was created with the intention of letting the public experience what prison life is really like. In addition, the website states how Alcotraz was ‘inspired by Hollywood Movies and TV that have brought to life America’s most infamous prison’ (Alcotraz, n.d.). Of course, none of us would question the credibility of the British media.
When looking at our society, the majority of the British population has succumbed to consumer culture – a recent modern phenomenon. This transition into the perpetual purchasing of commodities to seek fulfilment, has now progressed past simply obtaining items you can touch and developed into the consumerism of experiences. To fully conceptualise this cultural shift which has opened the space for attractions like Alcotraz, it is pertinent to understand the wider context. Since the 1960s it has been argued, more individuals have enrolled into consumer culture (Hall et al, 2008: 201) and has been on the rise ever since. One key driver for this according to Cooper (2009) ‘has been the remorseless (and invariably unethical) marketing practices of private corporations and the creation of new generations of young, narcissistic egotists committed to fantasies of distinction’. Essentially, as a result of the promotion of several material aspirations in an unequal society there has been a cultural shift amongst the young working-class population, where individuals are always in competition to prove their lives are more affluent than others. One very common example of this is through the population’s use of social media to show off their lifestyles, especially when visiting new establishments built for entertainment, such as Alcotraz. In addition, the intensity of public intrigue into violence, their lack of respect for ‘the other’ (‘the other’ being prisoners) and materialist consumerism appears to have grown, since crime-related media coverage and entertainment has become increasingly normalised and sought after by society (Cooper, 2019). This entertainment comes under ‘deviant leisure’ - the proposition that leisure behaviour sometimes goes against the moral grain of society (Stebbins et al., 2006: 3). An example of this was identified in a paper exploring the relationship between deviant leisure and serial killers which found that male and female team serial killers spent an inordinate amount of time preparing, committing and reliving the events during their free time (Gunn and Caissie, 2006). Hence, the perpetrators utilized serial murder as a leisure activity, albeit a deviant one. Linking this to the modern day, the British public have become fascinated with serial murder and this has been exploited through the ‘commodification of tragedy and atrocity of taboo topics’ (Stone and Sharpley, 2014: 55). Unfortunately, modern society has normalised this as consumer culture, putting our morals at risk as ‘an increasing number of critical spotlights are being shone on the moral and ethical dimensions of dark tourism’ (Stone and Sharpley, 2014: 55). However, there is a debate to be had, because some may not be aware of the moral complexities involved when attending activities such as these and fail to consider the deeper ethical concerns around pretending to be prisoners for their own amusement, whilst the real prison system is struggling and not being taken seriously by the public.
Looking back to the 1800s, one source of crime related entertainment was public executions. ‘People would flock in their thousands’ (Wilson, 2014) to contribute to the final moments of these individuals lives, and as a matter of fact, the manner of these executions being public was extremely dehumanising for the offender (Foucault, 1977). Later in 1868, the death penalty in the UK was no longer enacted in public and so the British public had to look elsewhere for criminal entertainment. This has always been part of our society but has gone under a transformation within the remit of consumerism. As mentioned earlier, late 20th and early 21st century criminal entertainment essentially took form of tours and prison experiences by promoting locations where well-known criminals lived or committed their crimes. Fast-forward to 2019, the latest selling point is bringing the criminal element into drinking establishments i.e. Alcotraz.
TripAdvisor brought up 28 pages of results when conducting a search using the terms ‘prison’, ‘UK’ and ‘things to do’. That is a significant amount, yet none of them will be accurate in providing realistic experiences of prison, despite what companies and reviewers say because they are all provided within safe parameters, when the reality of prison life cannot guarantee the same level of safety. One clear example why prison is not a guaranteed place of safety is the current overcrowding issue, combined with staff shortages which subsequently create a disorganised prison environment and will most likely exacerbate other issues, further damaging offenders mental and physical health. According to BBC News, ‘prison officers are concerned they cannot safely operate in jails with the current levels of staff, whilst there has been huge concern about conditions in prisons, escalating levels of violence, self-harm and suicide’ (Shaw, 2016).The staffing situation is even worse for privatised prisons, especially when ‘multimillion-pound global companies are being handed huge amounts of taxpayers' money to profit from locking people up by cutting staff and working conditions’ (Poyner, 2012). As it was stated earlier, one of the main purposes of prison is rehabilitation, but now prison privatisation is on the rise, prisons are becoming profit-driven, putting prisoner’s wellbeing in the backseat. As for Alcotraz, it is an entertainment venue designed to make a profit to keep the bar running, via consumerism. To further its popularity, the bar has been glamorised for entertainment value, which subsequently gives customers a false impression of true prison experiences, so just like those serving a sentence, Alcotraz customers are removed from reality. As Halley (2004) said, dark tourism (including Alcotraz) ‘allowed individuals to have a narcissistic 'therapeutic blubber' without the debilitating side-effects of having experienced actual tragedy’.
A recent article in the Guardian (Khomami and Colyer, 2017) highlighted some criticisms surrounding Alcotraz:
- Accused of being in poor taste and the latest in the “fetishisation of misfortune”
- Jane Gould Smith (acting chief executive of the charity Clean Sheet) said it was trivialising a serious matter, as “prison is not fun. The fact that they pay £30 in what is becoming a relatively affluent area of London shows how disconnected they are from the realities of our struggling prison system”
- One ex-offender said, “Something like this should not be hyped up. If they want to replicate prison life, then they should drag customers in to a 8ft-by-12ft room in the middle of summer, with only a small window, a toilet less than 2ft from the head of their bed, on a metal-framed bed with a mattress as thin as a cigarette paper and leave them in there for 14 hours. Give them a budget of £1.90 for their day’s food and charge them double for any luxuries they may want. Then I’d say that was more like prison.”
Nevertheless, those behind the bar continued to support the venture by stating how the experience is a nod to Alcatraz, rather than a direct replica and is more of an attempt to bring our favourite prison television series and movies to light, such as Escape from Alcatraz, The Rock, Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black. No upset was intended and the team hope to find ways to “see how it can partner with local communities to promote rehabilitation initiatives and encourage a greater learning of what took place within Alcatraz” (Khomami and Colyer, 2017). One suggestion has been made by the co-director of Unlock (a charity for convicted individuals), who said: “For the bar to genuinely reflect the realities of prison life, I would encourage the owners to look seriously at employing people who have served a prison sentence. Employment is a key factor in reducing reoffending, so this is an opportunity for the owners to put their money where their mouth is”. According to the government website, ‘over 300 businesses all around the UK are already employing ex-offenders’ (gov.uk, 2018), which is proof this initiative can work and simply needs to be implemented across more industries, improving the rehabilitation of released prisoners. Hopefully we can return to this matter at a later date and identify new relationships between the prison system and Alcotraz.
- Alcatraz Cruises (n.d.) Alcatraz Island: An Inescapable Experience. Available at: https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ [Accessed 9 April 2019]
- Alcotraz (n.d) Alcotraz: Prison Cocktail Bar.
- Cooper, C. (2009) Cooper, C. (2009), Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism – By Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and Craig Ancrum. Criminalising Social Policy: Anti‐social Behaviour and Welfare in a De‐civilised Society – By John J. Rodger. Available at: https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.bcu.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9515.2009.00677_2.x [Accessed 26 March 2019]
- Cooper, L. K. (2019) Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem? Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47474996 [Accessed 10 April 2019]
- Gauke, D. (2018) Prisons reform speech, London, 6 March. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prisons-reform-speech [Accessed 22 March 2019]
- Gov.uk (2018) Employing prisoners and ex-offenders. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlock-opportunity-employer-information-pack-and-case-studies/employing-prisoners-and-ex-offenders [Accessed 27 April 2019].
- Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.
- Khomami, N. and Colyer, J. (2017) New Alcatraz-themed east London bar 'fetishises misfortune'. The Guardian, 29 September. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/29/alcotraz-alcatraz-east-london-bar-san-francisco-jail [Accessed 26 March 2019].
- Poyner, C. (2012) Prison privatisation should be a national scandal. The Guardian, 8 November. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/nov/08/prison-privatisation-g4s-wolds [Accessed 27 April 2019]
- Shaw, D. (2016) Prison staff shortages leave jails facing 'bloodbaths' - union. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37842500 [Accessed 27 April 2019].
- Stebbins, A. R., Rojek, C. and Sullivan, M. A. (2006) Deviant leisure. Leisure/Loisir, 30(1). Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14927713.2006.9651338 [Accessed 27 April 2019]
- Stone, R. P. and Sharpley, R. (2014) Deviance, dark tourism and 'dark leisure': towards a (re)configuration of morality and the taboo in secular society. In: Elkington, S. and Gammon, J. S., ed. Contemporary perspectives in leisure: meanings, motives and lifelong learning. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 54-64.
- Tripadvisor (2019) Alcotraz Penitentiary. Available at: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g186338-d13009621-Reviews-Alcotraz_Penitentiary-London_England.html [Accessed 22 March 2019]
- Wilson, D. (2014). Pain and Retribution: A Short History of British Prisons. Winchester: Waterside Press.