Notes from a novice gardener: Alcatraz Gardens

It was one of the most feared prisons in America, but its gardens offered inmates an escape. Welcome to Alcatraz.

Credit: Melissa Fraser

Alcatraz, prison and gardens

It might be hard to imagine Al Capone getting down and dirty in the garden: digging up weeds, tending to perennials. But, like any good gangster serving 11 years in America’s most infamous prison, he could have had the chance to. Alcatraz may have been one of the most feared prisons, but some inmates were given an escape to solace while tending the garden.

Alcatraz was a barren rock when America first bought it from the Mexicans in the 1800s. When it became a military base, families that were living on the island had soil imported and they created Victorian gardens.

When Alcatraz became a prison in 1912, employees and inmates took care of the garden. An information plaque on the rock said the garden flourished under the care of the “closely watched penitentiary inmates.”

In Canada, prison gardens are used to encourage inmates to build community, act civic-mindedly and build skills.

The prison closed in 1963, but the various garden species that had been brought to the island throughout its history had a chance to thrive. Rose beds, flowering terraces, lawns, all grew wild.

In 2003, the Golden Gate National Parks, the Garden Conservancy, and the National Park Service took on the gardens. Today, visitors can enjoy the Alacatraz Gardens as the ferry pulls into the dock, and they can peek over a wall at the colourful beds. While it would have been nice to walk through and enjoy the gardens, there was no real access to them.
Alcatraz Gardens
Alcatraz Gardens
Alacatraz Gardens
Alcatraz GardensAlcatraz Gardens