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Alcatraz Inmate Gardeners

Inmate Gardeners

As early as 1869, military inmates began tending the Gardens of Alcatraz. Many of these inmate gardeners had no horticulture experience, but with vocational training and donated plants, they were able to transform the barren rock into extensive planted terraces, including a rose garden and cutting gardens overflowing with brightly colored flowers.

When the military left the island to the federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933, the tradition of inmate-gardening continued. Mr. Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to Warden Johnston, wanted to maintain the beautiful gardens left by the military, but realized he could not do it alone. With permission from the warden, he recruited maximum-security inmates. The work was a privilege: not only did it allow inmates to be out of their cells and away from the tension of the prison, but it also offered them a chance to create beauty in a forbidding environment.

In a letter to the California Horticultural Society shortly after the prison opened, Freddie Reichel wrote:

At first the authorities were fearful of allowing any “resident” loose on the island, even though under the custody of a gun tower officer. Finally, after much heckling on my part, someone was assigned to the west lawn, certainly not on the basis of his horticultural ability but rather because the other residents would have nothing to do with him…I found him not too terrifying and certainly no master mind. For one thing he was amazed to find that plants "were like that" when I explained to him the mysteries of hybridization, starting with an easy-to-manage subject—gladiolus.

Reichel eventually recruited other inmate gardeners who proved to be natural plantsmen. Under watch of the guard towers, the inmates carved the island's west side slopes into terraces and cultivated blooming gardens.

Watch Garden Conservancy Project Manager Shelagh Fritz talk about inmate gardener Elliot Michener.

Click on the inmates' names below to learn about their stories as Alcatraz gardeners.