When I realized I would be heading to San Francisco to cover the ABA’s Annual Meeting, I knew I had to make my way to Alcatraz Island, home of the infamous maximum security prison.
As a criminal law and policy reporter, visiting Alcatraz felt like a pilgrimage to me. It’s a well-preserved relic of criminal justice history, and I hoped it might serve as a reference point for how modern-day issues plaguing prisons developed.
But do anyone’s plans ever work out?
I toured the prison and learned that it was never at full capacity, but like most prisons it had strict rules, used solitary confinement for punishment, and had opportunities available for good behavior like educational courses or playing baseball.
Then I got to the gift shop and met Robert Luke, former Alcatraz inmate #1118.
Luke, 89, wrote a short autobiography called Entombed in Alcatraz. In it, he describes his checkered past as a youngster who faced prison time for defecting from the Navy and robbing a bank.
He got transferred to Alcatraz after he tried escaping San Quentin State Prison. Ultimately, he spent five years on Alcatraz.
I read the book, but admit it had minimal information on what daily life on “The Rock” was like in the 1950s. But, as Luke wrote, his days were so regimented that none really stand out in his memory.
At one point, Luke wrote that he spent 29 days in solitary confinement after using the Alcatraz prison rule book to set fire to his cot.
He spent that month naked in a dark cell, getting a piece of bread and a cup of water every day and a full meal once a week, he wrote. Guards let him out once a week for an hour of exercise outside and a shower, he added.
While he was signing copies of his book, I picked his brain on prisons now.
Luke said he thinks prisons have changed a lot with the rise in gangs and drug-related crimes. Prisons are more dangerous than they were, he said.
Luke also said he also believes recidivism is high because sentences are too long.
“You can’t get out and rehabilitate yourself or get job experience because you’re institutionalized,” he said.
He highlights his own difficulties in the book, writing that his brother helped find him a job after his release, but Luke still had to explain to his potential employers why he lacked 11 years of work history.
I asked about the prison closing down. The audio tour mentioned that shifting politics--in particular, an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment--played a role in Alcatraz being shut down.
Luke didn’t buy that, saying the prison was too expensive to keep up. He added that the criminal justice system couldn’t help a person leave a life of crime.
“There’s no such thing as rehabilitation,” Luke said. “You do it yourself.”
Finally, I asked what he thought was the most important aspect for people to know about Alcatraz. Luke said people should distrust popular culture representations of the prison.
“You can’t believe the movies,” Luke said. “It was a prison—a tough prison with a lot of tough people and a lot of violence.”
There was one positive, though.
“The food was really good,” he said.
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