Category Archives: Inmate Gardeners

Volunteers give a Saving Fix to Historic Terraces

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.

The laundry terraces during the Federal prison era. Photo by J. Simpson 1942-1946c

 

 

The inmate built terrace gardens today. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

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

The recipe ingredients: sand, Portland Cement and lime. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Bharat re-setting the concrete blocks with mortar. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Numbers etched into the cement that once formed a drain basin under a spigot. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

 

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Elliot’s Fig Tree

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.

Elliot's fig tree with the Golden Gate Bridge in view. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.”

The fig tree cleared of overgrowth and beginning of new plantings in November 2008. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The fig tree and restored gardens flourishing in May 2011. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Ripe fig. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

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This Day in History

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.

Mug shot of Albert E. Smith. Courtesy of NARA

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

Handwritten note from Smith requesting ant killer for the greenhouse.

 

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.

Prisoner gardens on the west side of the island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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