Alcatraz: an Island Full of Surprises

Prison display photo from Alcatraz Island
Prison display from Alcatraz Island {link url=}(photo courtesy of Christian Haugen){/link}

You may know about the prison island of Alcatraz and its infamous former inmates, who include Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelley, Richard “The Birdman” Stroud, and James “Whitey” Bulger. But how much do you really know? If you’ve never been to this isolated fortress in the middle of San Francisco Bay, we found a few things that might surprise you. Read on!

Surprise #1: The Boomerang Effect (Prisoners Who Actually Want to Go Back)

Think Alcatraz, and you think about an inescapable fortress, about men trying to find a way–any way–to get out. You don’t really think about prisoners wanting to go back. But believe it or not, former Alcatraz alumni (prisoners, guards, staff and their families), return to the island periodically for reunions.

If you’re lucky, on a visit to Alcatraz you might run into someone like Bob Luke. Otherwise known as prisoner #1118AZ, Luke spent five years on the island doing time for armed robbery before being released back into society. (He was one of the very few who went directly from The Rock right back into the real world.) Ian Craig’s new blog, Alcatraz the Rock, chronicles the visits and experiences of former convicts like Bob Luke, who has recently become a National Park Service volunteer on Alcatraz. Now a popular attraction in his own right, Luke entertains hundreds of visitors with his prison stories when he’s on the island. Take this recent anecdote from the blog: after speaking to a group of 400 tourists about details of his inprisonment, “a 5 year old girl in the front row…asked: ‘Was there anything FUN about Alcatraz?’ Mr. Luke thought for a moment, then responded: “Sure . . . leaving!

(Not surprisingly, Bob Luke has since claimed he likes Alcatraz much more than he used to.)

Surprise #2: The Gardens (That’s Right, We Said Gardens)

Succulents in the gardens of Alcatraz Island
Succulents in the Alcatraz gardens {link url=}(photo courtesy of Dawn Endico){/link}

Al Capone planting petunias? Well, perhaps it wasn’t as simple as that (especially as Capone was assigned laundry duty during his time on Alcatraz.) But the island is home to spectacular gardens that were once cultivated by inmates and other island residents. Not exactly an image you’d associate with a prison fortress, eh? But in recent years Alcatraz has become almost as popular for its horticulture as its criminal associations.

The gardens started in the 19th Century, when soldiers on Alcatraz (originally a military installation) began importing soil and planting small gardens so the island would not look so bleak. Then in the early 1930s, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over the island, gardening work was offered to the best-behaved inmates as part of their service detail on Alcatraz–convict gardeners both maintained and greatly expanded the original planting area. Other residents of the islands, such as prison administrators and their families, contributed to the beautifying project, as well. They all faced difficult challenges: there was often little to no fresh water available (all fresh water had to be transported to the island), frequent wind, steeply graded planting areas, and they only had a thin veil of topsoil on barren rock to work with. And when Alcatraz officially closed in 1963, the island gardens were left for 40 years in a state of neglect.

In 2003, a partnership between the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gates National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service launched the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project. Managers and volunteers have been bringing the gardens back to their original glory ever since, and have won multiple awards for their efforts. Project Manager and lead gardener Shelagh Fritz profiles the unique stories and challenges of her work in her charming Gardens of Alcatraz blog, as well as details about the flowers and plants that survive, and even thrive, in the challenging Alcatraz environment. The gardens are such a success, in fact, that she mentioned to us in a recent email, “[They] are often a surprise to visitors that come to the island, and for a lot of people, the gardens turn out to be the highlight of their trip.”

Surprise #3: Time Travel

Alcatraz and…time travel? It’s not exactly something the National Park Service lists in the brochure. But thanks to famous writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams (LOST, Fringe, Star Trek) and writer/producer Elizabeth Sarnoff (Deadwood, LOST) there will be an entirely new take on The Rock–at least on television–beginning this January. Filmed in the Bay Area, the show will feature dangerous and legendary convicts roaming the streets of modern San Francisco, a cop with an historic link to the prison island, and, yes, time travel. We may never look at Alcatraz quite the same again!

Buzz is already spreading about the new show, which is being compared to its immensely popular Abrams-produced predecessor, LOST, and features similar themes (an island surrounded by a deep mystery, time traveling characters, and narrative arcs told in flashbacks.) Blogger Ed Johnson from, who saw a preview and attended a panel discussion about the show at the July 2011 Comic-Con, reports that the show’s director, Jack Bender, was particularly interested in the character of the island itself. “Alcatraz, I remember as a little kid, always scared the crap out of me,” Bender said. “It’s dark, it’s ‘the Rock,’ it’s the island where all these bad people were in the middle of beautiful San Francisco Bay. So I think it has that allure still for people.”

Intrigued? TakeTours is offering special deals on multi-day Alcatraz: An Inescapable Experience tours for a limited time only. Explore the history, mysteries and legends of this fascinating place for yourself!