Preserving infamous former prisons and turning them into museums may help to teach future generations important human rights lessons, speakers at a panel on prison museums said yesterday.
The panel — part of the Green Island Human Rights Arts Festival — was held yesterday by the Council for Cultural Affairs (CCA) at the Taiwan Human Rights Memorial in Jingmei (景美), Taipei.
The Jingmei human rights memorial park is home to the courtrooms where political prisoners were tried during the 1960s to the 1980s period of the Martial Law era, and the facilities where they were imprisoned.
Political prisoners from the former Jingmei martial law prison stayed in very small cells with toilets located inside the cells.
They were often tortured, abused and forced to work as cheap labor, former political prisoners said in a video shown prior to the beginning of the panel.
“It’s important to preserve these buildings so that people can be reminded of what once happened here — if we don’t know our history, it may repeat itself,” CCA vice-chairman Wu Chin-fa (吳錦發) told the audience.
“If we’re unaware of it, human rights abuses could continue to happen in any corner of society — maybe in different forms — even in a democracy,” he said.
Guest speaker, Rich Weideman, public affairs chief for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, agreed that former prisons have important educational value.
He has worked as a tour guide at Alcatraz Island prison since 1980 and participated in the design of education curriculums about the prison.
Alcatraz was first used as a military base to protect San Francisco from attacks in the 1850s. It was turned into a military prison in 1909, and then a federal prison in 1934.
The prison was closed in 1963, and it was officially inaugurated as a tourist attraction in 1972.
“People have many misconceptions about prisons, because Hollywood movies and the media glamorized life in Alcatraz,” he said. “Therefore I think a tour of the prison presents a very good educational opportunity.”
To show what life on Alcatraz was really like, visitors follow in the steps of prisoners from the moment they arrived on the island. The tours are accompanied by voice recordings of former prisoners, guards and their families, telling their stories, Weideman said.
“It’s very important [for tourists] to get into the mindset of these prisoners — and some actually leave the place in tears,” he said.
“If what we do keeps even one kid out of prison, it’s worth the effort,” he said.
Park Goo-yong, a philosophy professor at South Korea’s Chonnam National University, and one of the planners of the May 18 Liberty Park in Gwanju, South Korea, shared similar views.
The May 18 incident happened in 1980 when tens of thousands of South Koreas demonstrated against military dictator Chun Doo-hwan — who had just taken control of the government following a coup — but were faced with a violent crackdown.
In order to commemorate the event, the May 18 Liberty Park was created in 1998 to preserve the martial-law courtroom and the military prisons.
“For many Koreans, the May 18 incident belongs to the past, and people only think about it every May,” Park said. “With the park and preservation of the historic space, we intend to educate our children about the history, so that they can learn about the core values of the uprising.”