This Thanksgiving, my husband and I travelled to San Francisco for a four day get away. We hit the regular tourist hot spots including Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, the Cable Cars and a 49ers game. We also took a trip to Alcatraz, getting a firsthand look at the infamous prison. We took the audio tour where we were each given a pair of headsets allowing us to hear the voices and stories of the prisoners and the prison guards as we walked through the corridors. This experience impacted me much more than I anticipated. The best way I can describe my emotion is to compare it to a disturbing but true movie, where you are glad you watched but don’t really need to see it again. For the first thirty minutes, we saw the cells, heard about the prison conditions and read about the prisoners who resided at Alcatraz. Regulation #5 was posted throughout the jail reading “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”
As we turned the corner, we walked into the prison library. I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion. I held back tears as I read about the library. The prisoners who had no physical freedom were able to earn the right to education, or mental freedom. They were permitted to order books or register for distance education classes. The average prisoner read 70-100 books per year to create a mental escape from their reality. The books became their hopes and dreams. In an institution where metal bars jailed their bodies, the library freed their minds and allowed them to learn. Some of the prisoners embraced this opportunity and developed skills and knowledge preparing them for life after prison. Near the end of the tour, we learned about four prisoners who left Alcatraz after their sentence and became contributing members of society, giving back in their communities and helping deter youth from a life of crime. This is such a wonderful example of the power of education and the power of restorative practices. Education is freedom.
This Thanksgiving I reflect on my own life and realize I have so much to be grateful for. I am thankful for my friends, my family, my amazing husband our boys, my career and my health. After visiting Alcatraz, I am also thankful for the learning opportunities that exist all around me. In any moment I can choose to read a book, engage in dialogue, sign up for a course, Google a topic or visit a library to improve my understanding of the world. We have the continuous opportunity to learn and for that I am thankful!