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Doing Time in the Garden: The Gardens of Alcatraz

By Toni Salter
May 23, 2012
File under: Gardening, Positive Psychology

“A garden is one of the few things in prison that one could control, being a custodian of this patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”
Nelson Mandela

These words penned by Mandela in his autobiography made me wonder about the inmates on the infamous Alcatraz Island, which housed some of America’s most notorious criminals until the 1960’s.

The popularity of the TV series by the same name has renewed interest in the prison and for me was a reminder of the garden I visited when I was last in San Francisco.

Prison gardens are not something new, in fact they’ve been around nearly as long as people have been incarcerated. Certainly an important part of time spent “inside” for many, the gardens are a symbol of hope for some and a means of healing for others.

Gardens in correctional centers provide fresh produce for the sustainable running of the facility and outdoor activity that many of the prisoners haven’t experienced before.  Many inmates are known to suffer from depression and high levels of personal insecurity because they have often been told (or they simply believe) that they could not produce anything of any benefit to others.

Depression and loss of hope for these people become fuel for a cyclical lifestyle of drug dependence and criminal behavior.  Sowing seeds and growing them  to mature healthy crops to be consumed by the prison community can also produce a sense of satisfaction in a relatively short time and help transform negative thinking patterns.

Teaching horticultural skills to those tending a garden on the inside give opportunity for meaningful employment post-release and less risk of repeat offending for some.

Others experience the joy of donating surplus produce to food banks and local community centers during their time on the inside.  Being able to give something to others can be a tangible source of validation and lift one’s self esteem.

Alcatraz gardens are certainly a testament to the human spirit. For inmates who earned the privilege of working in the garden, it provided an outlet for psychological escape, where there was no hope of physical escape from the Island.

The gardens are also a symbol of resilience in the harsh environment of chilling winters, severe wind, shallow soil and harsh slopes where many plants would not survive, just like the inmates.

The plants were specifically selected for their resilience and ability to withstand the harsh conditions of Alcatraz Island.  Careful preparation of terraced garden beds and special care tending these plants yeilded good results over time and show us today that something beautiful can be created out of something desolate.

The gardens of Alcatraz serve as a reminder of the hope, resilience and determination inherent in all of us, regardless of circumstance.  The gardens are funded by grants and rely on volunteers to help with ongoing restoration.

Toni Salter, ‘The Veggie Lady’, is an Australian registered horticulturist living in Sydney. Follow Toni on Twitter and ‘Like’ her on Facebook

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