Fifty-two years ago Robert Luke, Prisoner #118AZ, left Alcatraz for his first taste of life on the outside after more than a decade of trouble with the law.
Robert Luke had a long history of issues that put him behind bars. He had served a year in a Navy prison for assaulting a Marine guard; he had been at San Quentin for stealing a car, carrying a gun, and assaulting another prisoner. He was sent to McNeil Island in Puget Sound after helping to rob a bank. He was eventually moved to Leavenworth and from there to Alcatraz (for trying to escape from Leavenworth).
During his time in prison, Robert Luke received letters from his family but had few visitors. After a single visit to see Robert at Alcatraz, his brother found it so upsetting he told Robert at the time, he would never be able to come back.
In his autobiography, Entombed in Alcatraz,</em> Robert Luke describes life on Alcatraz and the pivotal moment when he wanted to straighten out his life.
Robert Luke's Realization
The smell of mown grass was the sensation Robert Luke remembers triggering his epiphany. It was a warm Saturday afternoon during a recreation period. He was sitting on the top step near the yard where other cons were playing handball. He gazed out at the Golden Gate Bridge when he became aware of a scent that he had not smelled in a very long time: The sweet smell of new-mown grass wafting over on a breeze from San Francisco.
"What am I doing here?" thought Luke, noting that he realized he should be where he could smell the grass every day.
Upon more reflection, he realized that he had come to Alcatraz "by his own choice," a series of decisions he himself made.
He had two more months of his federal sentence to serve and anticipated a couple of more years at San Quentin for parole violation, but at that point he determined to be on good behavior for his remaining prison time and then to get a job and go straight as soon as he was released.
As it worked out, Robert Luke was not sent back to San Quentin, and on April 26, 1959 he walked out of Alcatraz and into his new life. His brother in Los Angeles provided a place for him to stay, and his parole officer told him to find a job right away -- that was key to making it on the outside.
Luke began reading the help wanted ads in the newspaper and got an interview at an electronics company. The business was owned by two brothers, and they needed someone to work in the warehouse.
"I was interviewed by one of the owners. I was totally honest about my past, asking him to please take a chance on me," says Luke. "He called in his brother and consulted him, and they offered me the job.
"I knew the only way to make it was to go completely straight. I had to dress nicely, couldn't show attitude, couldn't curse, and had to keep my anger under control," says Luke. "I was really tired of who I was in prison, and this was my only way out."
Establishing a Life
From there, Luke's life steadily improved. He was working as a drapery installer when a young woman in the front office caught his eye. On their second date, he explained about his past, and now he and Ida Marie have been married almost forty years.
Throughout his post-prison life, Luke maintained steady employment. Before being trained as a drapery installer he held a series of jobs at restaurants, and eventually went on to a job that offered Ida and Robert a perfect lifestyle.
A friend of Luke's from Los Angeles moved to Utah to work at a resort on Lake Powell; one visit by the couple to the area convinced them they wanted to join him. Ida was soon working in the front office of the resort, and Robert worked at the marina, where he oversaw the buoy field. Robert had found a passion for fishing and golfing, so living near Lake Powell was ideal for them.
In 1980 their life took a different turn. Ida's mother, a chiropractor who lived just outside San Francisco, needed to give up her practice. Ida had been trained as a chiropractor, so she knew it was time to go back and help out. Ida took over her mother's practice, and Robert returned to drapery installation work and later worked on commission for a company that sold membership in hunting and fishing clubs.
Fifty-one years since gaining his freedom, Robert Luke decided he wanted to return to Alcatraz, the prison that was known for housing the "worst of the worst."
"Alcatraz held many bad memories for me," says Luke. "But it was also where I was when I realized I had a choice. I wanted to see what it would be like to sit on the top step in the recreation yard again and look out at San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge."
In July of 2010 he went online and found an email address for someone at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the government office that now oversees Alcatraz.
Within less than a month, Luke found himself traveling back to an Alcatraz "reunion" when both guards and prisoners re-visit the island. Ida went with him for the trip.
That visit was another turning point. Whatever demons Alcatraz held for him faded, and Robert Luke has become an integral part of the Alcatraz story. He frequently speaks to groups in San Francisco and he helped with the traveling exhibit about Alcatraz currently open on Ellis Island.
The Answer to Rehabilitation?
When asked about what he thinks would work when it comes to prisoner rehabilitation -- something he accomplished so well for himself, Luke notes that even today when there is a little more emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation, "it's still up to the individual," he says. "You have to make the choice."
Luke notes that the Canadian judicial system sentences prisoners to shorter lengths of time, and he points out that if a prisoner can see a light at the end of the tunnel, it can help. "But then, it's up to them. They have to decide to do the right thing."
Now that he has written his autobiography, he is at work on a pamphlet about choices that he hopes can be distributed free within prison systems.
"We are all born with the ability to make our own choices," says Luke. "But once you make the wrong choice, other people make your decisions for you.
"I want prisoners to understand that it's up to them to make the right choice."
Alcatraz Island is open year-round. The only access to the island is by boat so visit Alcatraz Cruises for tickets. Until Jan 12 a traveling exhibit about Alcatraz is open on Ellis Island with tickets available through Statue Cruises. To read about the traveling exhibit, visit " "
For more stories of America's past, visit www.americacomesalive.com.
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