Icon of the lower 48 and tick marks by fives in the background. The Big Lockup Mass Incarceration in the United States.
Icon for The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the United States. Maya Rodriguez NPS.

On Alcatraz Island, visitors learn its history and hear the voices of former residents. Yet the significance of Alcatraz also lies in its connection to contemporary issues of criminal justice. The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration in the United States provides opportunities for visitors to explore issues around mass incarceration and race in the United States within the context of Alcatraz island as a military prison and federal penitentiary. The exhibit invites you to learn and then form and express your own opinions related to the following questions:

Why does our country incarcerate more people than any other country? Why are people of color incarcerated at a higher rate? What is the impact on individuals, families and communities? How is this system changing and what are the alternatives?


Things to know about the exhibit:

The Big Lock Up is a permanent exhibit installed in the 900 sq. ft. former Band Practice Room in the Cell House. This optional exhibit experience is located at the conclusion of the hour-long Cell House Audio Tour, in which former prisoners and guards describe the daily conditions and life within Alcatraz Prison when it was a federal penitentiary.
With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than any other country in the world, and a disproportionate number of them black and brown, the exhibit looks at how we got to this point and the implications on our country’s future. It asks: Is this justice? Is there a better way? Click here for a full break down of The Big Lockup: Mass Incarceration, major themes, featured media, and more.

By 1859, the country was heading towards a civil war and Fort Alcatraz stood as the only permanent completed military fortification on the San Francisco Bay and west of the Mississippi River. Some 350-430 Union Army men served on the island at any given time between 1861 and 1865. Fort Alcatraz played an important role in defending the west coast during the fight to end slavery in the United States.

Although Alcatraz took part in the fight for freedom during the Civil War, it is best known for its incarceration of men. As a former military prison from 1859 to 1934, the island held disorderly soldiers, conscience objectors, men of the Hopi nation and others. Robert Simmons, an African-American conscientious objector during WWI was one such prisoner. He suggested that he would rather face the hardship of Alcatraz than the brutality of Jim Crow laws and lynching at home.

During the subsequent 29 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz held 1500 men who were considered troublemakers from other prisons. Robert Lipscomb, an African-American was transferred to Alcatraz because of his many escape attempts and organization of black inmates to resist segregationist practices within the prison system. He called for desegregation of prisons, citing a 1948 executive order to desegregate the military.

Alcatraz Island is a site within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. As referenced in the GGNRA’s Foundation Document, Alcatraz Island provides a powerful opportunity to encourage visitors to contemplate their personal views on crime and punishment, the judicial system, national defense and freedom.

Theme 5 of GGNRA's Long Range Interpretive Plan states, "Layers of history within the park challenges us to contemplate the meaning of freedom, justice and equality...the island provides an opportunity to consider the contrasting views on human rights and rehabilitation, as well as civil rights movements and role of political protest"

Per the document Alcatraz 2026, A Vision for the Future of Visitor Experience, “the Alcatraz brand is internationally known for catalyzing transformational thinking and experience related to the themes of incarceration, justice, and our common humanity.”

Along with 230 members in 55 countries, including 17 other national park sites, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a proud member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Sites of Conscience enable visitors to make connections between the past struggles and related human rights issues of today.

As stated in the National Park Service 5 Year Interdisciplinary Strategy for Achieving Relevance in our Second Century, parks should “foster transformative experiences that help people find meaning and make sense of issues that reflect the breath of the country’s natural and cultural resources and its people”. Similar to how we interpret civil liberties at Manzanar National Historic Site, slavery and freedom at Harriet Tubman National Historic site, segregation and education at Brown v. Board National Historic Site, Alcatraz Island interprets incarceration and justice in the larger context of our history and the undecided future of our country.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons: Alcatraz and the American Prison Experience exhibit opened on the island in 1991 to mark the centennial of the Three Prisons Act. It focused on some of the issues of incarceration, but after more than 27 years the exhibit was obsolete with its core story ending in the 1970s. In addition, the exhibit materials were deteriorating, and it was removed in 2019.

There have also been some temporary exhibits related to incarceration. The most notable of these was the 2015 exhibit @Large by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. That exhibit focused on political prisoners in the U.S. and around the world. Other temporary exhibits included Future IDs featuring artist inspired IDs by and with those with conviction histories, Prisoners of Age, about the aging prison population; Sentence Unseen, about children of those incarcerated; Restorative Justice Comic Book: an Alternative to Prison; Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption; and San Quentin Art Project, which featured prints and watercolor of prisoners in the state prison’s art therapy program. In addition, Kevin Epps produced a film called Black Rock about the lesser known African-American experience on the island.

In December 2016, the WASO Interpretive Civil Rights Fund source approved “Reframing Exhibits at Alcatraz Island for Relevancy and Dialogue on the African American Experience”. The funds included design and installation of a new exhibit about incarceration today with a focus on the impacts of incarceration on African-American community.

In 2017 additional funds were sought to complete the 900 sq. foot exhibit. Funds from Alcatraz Cruise investment (as required by concession contract), Visitor donations, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy donation, and Concession Franchise Fee program were also obtained.

Early in the development stage, NPS held two charrettes (focus groups) to get input and advice on creating an exhibit about mass incarceration. These charrettes included internal staff and external individuals--historians, artists, educators, academics, civil rights attorneys, leaders of non-profit organizations and those with conviction histories. External participants included:

  • A New Way of Life
  • All of Us or None
  • College and Community Fellowship
  • Community Works West
  • Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice
  • Constance Moore, Educator
  • Elaine Elinson, Author
  • Facing History and Ourselves
  • General Parker, Advocate
  • John William Templeton, Historian
  • Just Leadership USA
  • Kevin Epps, Filmmaker
  • Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
  • National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated
  • Prison Law Office
  • Project Rebound, Expanded
  • San Francisco Human Rights Commission
  • The Ordinary Peoples Society
  • Time for Change Foundation
  • Voice of the Experienced
  • YMCA Youth Court

In addition, staff received guidance from the Oakland Museum, California Historical Society Executive, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, and other NPS Park Superintendents, and regional NPS staff on how to interpret a charged issue like incarceration.

NPS hired Susan Anderson, public historian and expert in African-American history, former managing director at UCLA and University of Southern California’s libraries’ Special Collections, and current Curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles to curate the exhibit. She developed the overall concept and framework for the content and assisted in gathering source material. Many others such as those who are profiled in the Model Programs flipbook assisted with content development for individual sections of the exhibit.

NPS and Parks Conservancy staff collectively researched, wrote and finalized the content. Primary staff members include Michele Gee, Chief of Interpretation and Education, Will Elder, Media Supervisor, Michael Faw, Accessibility and Exhibit Specialist, Benny Batom, Education Specialist, Maya Rodriguez, Visual Information Specialist, Katy Olds, Director of Visitor Services for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The exhibit was peer reviewed and edited by:

  • Brent Glass, Museum Consultant and Director Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

  • Tony Platt, Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at UC Berkeley and author of Beyond these Walls

  • Elaine Jackson-Retondo, PhD, Historian for the National Park Service, Pacific West Region

  • Elaine Elinson, Author and former editor for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California

  • Susan Shah, Program Director, Vera Institute of Justice

  • Dorsey Nunn, co-founder of All of Us and Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

  • Lori Umemoto, MSW, LCSW, Clinical Physiologist for those in prison and with criminal history

Exhibit Designer: Adam Prost

Exhibit Fabricator: Niche Creative

Audio Component: Ear Hustle of San Quentin

Video components: Unlimited Digital Media, The Atlantic, Hope House DC,

Personal testimonies and Model Programs: Pioneer Human Services, Promise for Families, Project Rebound, YMCA Marin Youth Court, A New Way of Life, Community Works West, Legal Services for Children with Families.

We used many sources for the exhibit and always worked to get primary source material such as studies and reports done by academic institutions, government agencies and nonprofit public policy and research organizations.

Government sources include:

  • U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice
  • U.S. Department of Education
  • California Senate Office Research
  • National Center for Education Statistics


  • Loyola Law School
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • Bierkbeck University of London, Institute for Criminal Policy Research

Public Policy and Research and Institutions:

  • The Sentencing Project
  • Prison Policy Initiative
  • Vera Institute of Justice
  • National Council on Crime and Delinquency
  • State of Working America
  • The Brookings Institute
  • Pew Research Center
  • National Alliance for Mental Illness
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Center for American Progress
  • The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Last updated: September 9, 2022

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