Doing Time in the Gardens of Alcatraz

Pick the odd one out: General MacArthur roses, Al Capone, maximum security prison.

If you chose Al Capone, you’re wrong. On the island of Alcatraz, two kilometres off the coast of San Francisco, you’ll find the echoes of all these things. Rose gardens bump heads with notorious criminal histories and the ruins of cell blocks out there on the Rock.

For thirty years Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary sat atop its namesake island in San Francisco Bay, home to a string of high profile public enemies the likes of Al Capone, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and the Anglin brothers. Prisoners were sent to Alcatraz because they’d outstayed their welcome elsewhere: escapees were brought there, repeat offenders, and those caught exercising brutal behaviours towards society and its laws.

You could call it the least likely place for a garden. But surrounding the stronghold which kept prohibition era gangsters, kidnappers, bank robbers and murderers were flowering terraces of the purest intent, maintained by inmate gardeners.

Today the prisoners are gone, but some of their attempts to reform the Rock remain.

Alcatraz was, in 1849, a wind-pummelled, sandstone island, not much more than 400 metres long and 40 metres wide with a double summit peaking at the same height above sea level. Its surface was seared white with proof of its original residents; gulls, pelicans and cormorants, together with colonies of seals and sea lions. There was no native vegetation to speak of; seasonally, a few wild poppies might appear amongst tougher, low-lying shrubs and grasses.

The island’s potential as a point of defence for San Francisco Bay changed all this. Fortification of the island begun in 1853, when its perimeters were blasted to create sheer cliffs and barracks and gun emplacements added. Five years later, Alcatraz was a fortress, though it was not long before the first gardeners began to chip away at its hardened exterior. “By the end of the Civil War, people were excavating sockets in the rock of Alcatraz, filling them with imported earth, and planting ornamental gardens,” author John Hart explains in Gardens of Alcatraz (1996).

The earliest gardeners were Civil War soldiers and military families living on the island. “The species planted, or at least the ones that thrived, displayed a certain kind of toughness,” writes Hart. “In this foggy and maritime climate neither heat-tolerance nor frost-tolerance mattered, but plants had to endure all-but-continuous wind.”

In the garden beds and planter boxes of the officers’ homes heliotropes and fuchsias grew, alongside roses, sweet peas and lilies.

In 1924, an unlikely collaboration between the military and the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association resulted in an island-wide beautification project. By this time Fortress Alcatraz had been converted into a military prison, so inmates were tasked with planting hundreds of donated trees – eucalyptus, pines, cypress, and giant sequoias – and nasturtium and poppy seeds by the kilo.

In this sense, it was a legacy of gardening, as well as a prison, that was handed by the US military to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933. One year later Alcatraz was re-born as a civilian penitentiary. Its founders wanted the ultimate prison – a super-maximum lock-up – during an era of rampant crime. Alcatraz was for prisoners of the worst kind, a jail of last resort, where the prospect of escape was no more than a steely pipedream for criminal minds to butt their heads against. When the first civilian prisoners arrived, 137 or so bank robbers, counterfeiters and murderers escorted by sixty FBI Special Agents, it was the tail end of summer.

The handcuffed men and their guards might not have noticed, but the General MacArthur roses were in bloom, unleashing their strong perfume across the wind-blasted place.

The Secretary to the Warden, Freddie Reichel, assumed charge of the hillside terraces, rose gardens and the greenhouse remaining from army days. “Reichel convinced the warden to allow prisoners to garden, and with the advice of prominent California horticulturists, helped to direct the transformation of the island’s western slopes into a series of gardens,” explains the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, which now operates the island. In correspondence with the California Horticultural Society, Reichel wrote of his unique experiences with criminal gardeners:

“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’s main recruits were prisoner AZ-578, Elliott Michener, and prisoner AZ-387, Richard Franseen. Both men were convicted counterfeiters; additionally, Michener had been part of an escape attempt from Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. At Alcatraz, his trajectory from inmate to inmate-with-gardening-privileges was gradual. First, Michener was assigned to collecting handballs that had been lobbed outside the recreation yards. He then returned a lost key to a prison guard, and this proved the bona fides he needed for his promotion to gardener. Prisoner AZ-578 was quickly assigned to the west side of the island to build cottage gardens – and was, perhaps, the unidentified resident Reichel spoke of in his letter.

“The hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession,” Michener said in an interview years later.

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.”

The image of inmates in faded blue dungarees tending to roses and cutting long-stemmed gladiolus for floral arrangements is extraordinary, bearing in mind the violent histories that cast these men out onto the island. “I didn’t have any botanical background,” Michener explained to interviewers. “I learned to garden at Alcatraz. Got a lot of books and studied them. Learned about it.”

“My gardening work began with planting the trip of hill beside the steps with mesembryanthemum, so that all of the hillside would be the same – pink, laced with yellow oxalis. The terrace – six to ten feet wide on either side of a curbed, graded road – had been gardened, apparently, for many years, but under difficulties. Nowhere was the soil more than four or five inches deep. Under that was solid yellow hardpan.

I undertook what turned out to be a two-year task: breaking up the hardpan to a depth of two-and-a-half feet, screening it, fertilising it with thousands upon thousands of five-gallon pails of garbage lugged up from the incinerator and disposal area. As the garbage rotted and the beds subsided, I planted them with Iceland poppies, stock and snapdragon, all supplied by my friend [fellow inmate gardener] Dick Franseen. Later, I got permission from Warden Johnston to send out for seeds and plants and was able to raise picture-beds of delphinium, chrysanthemum, dahlias and iris.”

Gardening was a way for fortunate inmates, those like Michener and Franseen, to maintain a connection with the outside world and to carve a place for themselves within the hierarchy of the island. “When the warden and his wife had guests, I’d bring them up a bunch of flowers and they’d leave a tip for me,” recalled Michener. “The warden’s wife would bet that money on the horses for me. ‘Don’t you ever tell the warden!’ she’d say.”

“On the Rock, little grew uninvited or untended. Only human tenacity enabled plants to flourish,” writes Delphine Hirasuna in Gardens of Alcatraz. The same can be said of the individuals brought there to serve time. Alcatraz certainly didn’t offer the therapy of roses and Icelandic poppies to all, and proved a place where rehabilitation was implausible for many. There was implicit violence between prisoners; between prisoners and guards. There were suicides, murders and famous escape attempts made by convicts hell-bent on freedom despite the hazardous currents of San Francisco Bay.

Prison-era Alcatraz was, at its core, an unsentimental place, which the introduction of gardens had only begun to soften.

Michener, for his part, spent nine years working in the gardens of Alcatraz, before he was transferred back to Leavenworth, the prison he had originally tried to escape. From there he wrote to Alcatraz’s Warden Swope, with a plea to return:

“I believe that my best and only practical course is to get back to Alcatraz,” he asserted. “You will understand, I think, that after sixteen years in prison I just haven’t the stomach for eight more years of the discipline and close confinement that are standard here. At Alcatraz, I could at least grow Bell roses and delphiniums seven days a week and enjoy considerable freedom and trust, and in general make the best of things.”

A year later Michener was released from prison for good behaviour and time served and joined his friend and fellow ex-convict, Dick Franseen, working at a farm in Wisconsin. “Dick and I are getting along well and for the first time I’m learning how much better one can do living honestly than by, say, counterfeiting!” Michener wrote to the warden. “We have cars and fat bank accounts… And we have a favour to ask: will you send us a bush of our old ‘Gardener’ rose?”

Thirteen years after Michener left Alcatraz, the prison was closed for good. “Although largely neglected since the prison was shut down in 1963, [the plants of Alcatraz] have shown remarkable adaptability and endurance. Nature has exerted its own direction and has been startlingly successful.”

Many trees, plants and shrubs have continued to thrive, outgrowing their original boundaries and wildly intermingling with one another,” Hirasuna observes.

The list of plants that survived forty years of solitary confinement on the Rock is both predictable and startling: succulents like aeoniums, jade plants and agaves thrived, as did echiums, edible figs, artichokes and golden wattles. Perhaps more surprisingly, the General MacArthur climbing roses – and eight other rose cultivars, though not Michener’s ‘Gardener’ rose – were still there when the US National Park Service took over control of the island in 1972. Alongside them sweet peas, fuchsias, daffodils and bearded iris continued, too.

And they were all still there in 2003, when a collaborative project to restore the gardens was begun by the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. Work started in the terrace gardens tended by Michener on the western side of the island and along the Officer’s Row, and continued with the rehabilitation of extant garden beds, the slope next to the cell blocks and the construction of a new greenhouse.

The reanimation of Alcatraz’s prison gardens has been carried out by staff and volunteers, who trek back and forth between the mainland and island by ferry. Each year a million or more tourists join them, to witness the ruins of one of history’s most notorious prisons. Gone are the convicts, but some of their most personal – and generous – gestures remain in the flower beds and terrace gardens of Alcatraz.

Further reading: Gardens of Alcatraz, essays by John Hart, Russell A Beatty and Michael Boland, 1996, Golden Gate National Parks Association.

The official website of Alcatraz is run by The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.