Alcatraz from the inside provides a stark contrast to the outside, though not as you'd expect. Inside, 1.4 million visitors a year move in eerie silence, listening intently to audio histories, mouths open. They appear stunned, their shuffling feet the only sound, soft and disturbing in the three-story decomposing structure. I stand in a cell, arms outstretched almost touching both walls ghostly walls that make me begin to comprehend the meaning of "inside."
Outside, hundreds of nesting birds broadcast a cacophony as each defends nest and territory: gull, crow, heron, cormorant, egret. I'm told not to look the gulls in the eye: challenged, they might attack. Like the former inmates, they have their own rituals. In the "Yard," I see where violent criminals once sat. I am alone, with wind, gulls, blue sky and the city peeking over crumbling walls.
"La Isla de los Alcatraces," Island of the Pelicans, was a round rock poking above the surface of San Francisco Bay. Thus "The Rock," brutally barren, windswept, inhospitable when named in 1775.
The Rock has three historic phases. The first was Defense. In the early 1850s, the U.S. Army built a fortress to protect the new state's gold and resources.
The second phase was Punishment. In 1861, the fortress was converted to a military prison to include Civil War prisoners. In 1865, to make their new home more hospitable, families of the prison staff imported soil and planted gardens, using inmates for labor. In the 1920s, gardening continued, in part to beautify the view of the island from the city.
The third phase was Isolation. In 1934, Prohibition created an abundance of organized, violent offenders. The best behaved inmates volunteered in the gardens. By 1963, the expense of supplying the island and maintaining the structures against the relentless environment forced the return of Alcatraz to an uninhabitable place. For 40 years, nature went wild as gardens, terraces, paths and structures dissolved and disappeared.
Many visitors come to witness infamy, but I've come to see the gardens. Sponsored since 2003, dedicated volunteers have removed layer upon layer of debris to reveal magical treasures. Five historic garden areas are caught in time and reflect the island's phases. Old fig trees flourish in the Inmates Garden; a rose extinct in Wales was returned home; 40-year-old fuchsias and masses of hens and chicks line the restored paths, as the west side again flaunts a carpet of lavender ice plants to the city.
Surviving plants and newly introduced sustainable species respond to micro-climates on the island. Contrast between architectural decay and the rebirth of color and textures in the gardens is what makes Alcatraz so stunning. It's as if the dedication of the prisoners who tended the gardens and clung to life through their contact with the soil has been reincarnated through passionate stewardship today. It's as if there's now a fourth phase of Alcatraz: Restoration.