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Category Archives: Inmate Gardeners
Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.
According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.
Without a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s
work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.
Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.
For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.
Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.
J.J. Abrams new hit series ‘Alcatraz’ premiered January 16 and has viewers sitting on the edge of their chairs. The show also has visitors creeping over ‘Area Closed’ signs on the island, trying to get a glimpse of the secret tunnels and passageways shown on the television show.
In one episode, lead characters step over
a chain and onto a gravel roadway. However, instead of leading to the underground high-tech research lab, in reality, the path leads to another secret – the gardens.
The thriving gardens are seemingly out of place on an island that was focused on punishment, containment and defense. Today, the plant life contrasts sharply against the weather worn concrete and iron bars. To fully appreciate the gardens, you have to be prepared to look over
retaining walls and not follow
I wonder if the television show will feature any of the inmate gardeners? Our newest webpage, Inmate Gardeners, profiles three inmates who were lucky enough to be assigned garden duties. One of the inmates, Elliot Michener, even worked in the Warden’s House, tending to household chores, serving meals and actually became friends with the Johnson family.
Now is the time to plan a trip to see the gardens in their spring beauty. Join us for free garden walks and we’ll take you into the secret closed areas; and show you our Alcatraz, the one that softens the Rock and looks beautiful in the sunshine and the mysterious fog. Be sure to book a ticket with Alcatraz Cruises for the 9:10 sailing on Fridays or Sundays.
Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.
Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect
and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.
These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February. A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.
Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.
Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.
Harvest season is here and the chill in the air at night says winter is on its way. The fig tree, Ficus carica, growing in the inmate’s garden on the west side of the island has produced a bumper crop this year, at least for the songbirds who will benefit most from the abundance of fruit.
The fig tree, believed to be a black Mission Fig, was planted by inmate gardener Elliot Michener in the early 1940s. In an oral history interview with Elliot conducted in the late 1990s, he visited the island and walked around his gardens once again, showing the interviewer where he had spent nine years of his life working in the gardens. He saw the fig tree still growing in its original spot; and in a proud gardener’s voice with a hint of tour guide points out “and here are my old fig trees.” Elliot clearly remembered the fig tree growing on both sides of the fence with the guard tower in the background. In the interview, Elliot remarks “Yes, they have lasted a long time, just all these years.”
Where Elliot obtained the fig tree is not known. Perhaps one of the guards that traded seeds for bouquets of inmate grown flowers was the source; or maybe the inmates were treated to figs for dessert and the inmates grew the tree from seeds? Nevertheless, the fig tree continues to prosper.
The fig has done so well, that in fact, during the 40 years of the gardens being neglected, the fig took on a life of its own and colonized the western lawn. The thicket of fig provides prime summer nesting habitat for approximately 80 pairs of nesting snowy egrets.
Elliot also comments in his interview “I’ve eaten figs off of this tree”. I too, have eaten a few ripened figs off of the same tree and have tasted what he has tasted. Working the same soil and tending the same plants as gardeners past, reinforces the importance of preserving historic horticulture and the stories of the people that tended these gardens.
For island visitors, many of them pause at the tree and wonder what kind it is. For me, not only is it a chance to show them their first fig tree but to also tell them about Elliot and what the gardens meant to him.
July 16, 1951 Albert E. Smith, Alcatraz inmate 669-AZ, had a Special Progress Report prepared on his behalf for consideration of restoration of good time. Smith had been working in the gardens and on the labor crew from September 1946 until on January 24, 1950, he was involved in a fist-fight with a fellow inmate in the dining hall during breakfast time. This fist fight would forfeit him 180 days of good time off his sentence.
The Special Progress Report filed on this day in history would restore his good time.
Smith began a troubled life at age 18 with breaking and entering, leading up to more serious charges of robbery that sentenced him to serve 24 years in Atlanta Prison in 1939. In 1945 he was transferred to Alcatraz for attempted escape. Smith was considered a serious offender – serving a lengthy sentence and being an escape risk, he was perfect for Alcatraz, a place that took the worst of the worst.
Reading through inmate files at the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno, it is hard not to be sympathetic to the inmates that made a few poor choices that led them to imprisonment, especially when they had experienced a tough childhood. Smith’s mother had passed away early in his upbringing and later, at age 6, Smith fell out of a window onto a cobbled street. Prior to his fall, he was considered bright but after the fall, he showed little interest in anything and was easily swayed by others.
His transfer to Alcatraz may have been a blessing in disguise. After serving two years on the garbage crew, he was assigned to the garden crew. All of Smith’s Progress Reports tell of a steady and dependable worker, performing his gardening work on the west side of the island well. Reports tell that he kept his tools in order and chased handballs that came over the recreation fence on the weekends. Although, he did had a few complaints: the limited use of water, the weather, and the food. I can certainly appreciate the first two concerns. He was seen as being very friendly and talkative, and laughed like a little boy would.
Inmates were allowed to write notes to the Warden voicing their concerns and could expect a reply back. Smith wrote several notes
requesting permission to use more water, as well as requesting an insecticide, Black Leaf 40, to control ants in the greenhouse. The Warden “advised Smith that water is a very scarce item on the Island, and that it is difficult for us to permit the excessive use of water in any way…”. The Warden sought advice on the use of the insecticide, a tobacco based product, as he was not keen on the idea of inmates having access to a poison.
In January 1952, Smith was transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas and he would remain there until his release in September 1962. It is not known whether Smith continued with his interest in gardening but at least during his time on Alcatraz, his attention to the plants kept him out of trouble and gave him something to nurture.
The Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island were restored in 2009 and again offer a respite from the bleakness of the prison, and just maybe you’ll see a handball that escaped Smith.