Write for Rights on Alcatraz: From A Prison to A Fortress of Human Rights

December 20, 2014


By: Shaudee Dehghan, Humera Durrani, Lisa Mueller-Dormann, Sarah Rubiaco

Upon disembarking from the ferry it immediately became clear to all of us why Ai Weiwei chose the island to showcase his exhibit. The island’s ominous history as a military fortress, high security prison, and refuge for persecuted indigenous people is steeped in oppression, an emotion that fully engulfed us as we set off towards the @Large exhibit.IMG_2691

As we walked through the old, dark and damp dilapidated buildings, with their grey cracked walls and broken windows, Ai Weiwei’s intention to relay oppression and imprisonment upon the viewer was reinforced. However, through his work Ai Weiwei has transformed Alcatraz Island from a symbol of oppression and fear to one of freedom of expression and activism.


Our visit to Alcatraz was in conjunction with Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign, so it was of no surprise that one of the most emotional and powerful parts of the exhibit for all of us was Trace. Trace is a collection of 178 portraits of prisoners of conscience with each portrait made of Lego bricks and substantiated with details provided through Amnesty’s research of the individual cases.  While we felt this to be an ironically playful material for such serious subject matter, Ai Weiwei intentionally chose this material to bring to mind the relationship of the individual and the collective; through the assemblage of many small parts into a vast and complex whole. Such symbolism aligns perfectly with the purpose of Amnesty’s annual Write for Rights campaign, during which we unite as individuals to collectively create change.


This letter writing campaign allows people everywhere to write in solidarity with victims of oppression and their family members as well as apply pressure on governments to abide by international human rights law.

Best Alcatraz Group Photo

As we stared at the portraits of the proud faces of those have refused to be silenced, we were reminded and empowered by their resolve to fight in the face of injustice. It is through our Write for Rights Campaign, that we use the power of paper and pen to give a voice to those who have been oppressed. Throughout the year, this campaign is coupled with the Urgent Action Network and Individuals at Risk, displaying Amnesty’s continuous commitment to freedom of expression and protection of human rights. These efforts have a history of impacting real change in the lives of the individuals by either improving their conditions in prison or releasing them. We were fortunate and privileged enough to meet one of Amnesty’s success stories on our trip.


Undoubtedly, one of the most resonating and powerful parts of the trip was hearing Bu Dongwei, former prisoner of conscience from China and one of Amnesty’s previous Write for Rights cases, speak. When asked about the effectiveness of Amnesty’s letter writing campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience, he explained that due to Amnesty International’s advocacy and visibility, he was not tortured and was eventually released. His story, although emotional and disturbing, also gave us hope for what we were trying to accomplish by writing letters to release prisoners of conscience globally.

Bu Dongwei Speaking at Alcatraz

As these people are fighting for their beliefs, we, in turn, will fight for them as well. Despite our different personal and cultural backgrounds, being German, Iranian-American, Filipino-American and Pakistani-American students we all feel this responsibility to participate in the Write for Rights Campaign to embrace hope and freedom.