Message from The Rock

by Belinda Munoz on May 23, 2012


I see Alcatraz everyday. On most days, it sits like a rare gem floating in liquid sapphire. The bay from a few storeys high is always a mesmerizing view. Everything that surrounds this small island is in constant motion — drifting, swirling, passing through.

This past weekend, after five years of look-but-can’t-touch anticipation, son declared he was old enough to visit.

We fought off throngs of tourists for tickets. We took the requisite boat ride. We walked up the steep ramps. We set foot on The Rock as a family for the first time.


I’d love to be able to say it was every bit as exciting for my son as he imagined. But I’m afraid it wasn’t. Little guy tuckered out soon after the penitentiary thrill of being inside a cell wore off.

Me? I could’ve lasted a lot longer. There were magnificent views to take in. There were pictures to snap and graffiti to decipher. There were gardens to walk, birds to watch, flowers to smell and blessings to count, particularly when you know you’re visiting a prison by choice.

I’m inclined to joke about wanting to do more time on The Rock, except, I met someone that day who actually did serve time there.

It was a chance meeting.

His name was Robert Luke. He was big and tall. He looked sturdy and imposing sitting next to a lady, presumably his wife, much smaller than he. Though he was in his 80s, he exuded a vibe — an air of authority of sorts — best not to be messed with.

He wrote Entombed in Alcatraz, a short but painfully honest tell-all about his time growing up and serving a sentence on The Rock. He was there that day for a book-signing. Husband, son and I were drawn to him and made our way to where he sat. He signed our copy of his book.


My son wanted to know what he did that landed him in a cell on The Rock.

“I was a bank robber”, he said.

I was struck by the matter-of-fact manner in which he spoke this admission of crime. It wasn’t humble or apologetic, but it wasn’t proud either. It was a manner possible only after having served a full sentence, having it be a source of shame for decades, and eventually being able to reach that place of self-forgiveness.

The line of people waiting to meet him was growing behind us so we said goodbye. We shook his hand and told him what a pleasure it was to meet him.

We made our way down the wide zig-zagging ramps. We got in line to catch a boat back to the City. Soon, we were sailing away, leaving behind the cold surface of cement and steel. I thought of Robert Luke as we approached the dock. I wondered how he felt when he first set foot on land after serving five years on The Rock.

I can only guess.

What I do know is I was happy to meet someone like Robert Luke. The courage with which he shares his story, his crime and punishment, is nothing short of admirable. What a gift it is to know that there are people who turn their lives around and have the generosity of spirit to serve as inspiration for those who might consider giving up or think it can’t be done.

I played tourist in my hometown and, unexpectedly, I was moved.

Fortunately for the real tourists, The Rock remains solid and unmoved.


Have you ever visited Alcatraz?
Is crime/punishment worth pondering even if one is a law-abiding citizen?
Do we define crime justly?
What about banks that rob the people? Is this punishable? How? Who is culpable if this continues?


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ayala May 23, 2012 at 5:19 am

Belinda, I feel the way you do… it takes courage to share his story especially in a society that judges so much. It takes a long time for self forgiveness and those that change their life for the better should. I am always inspired by those that can rise above calamity and change their life for the better. Great post.


2 Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri May 23, 2012 at 8:12 am

Belinda: When we visited San Fran last year, we debated and decided to hold off on going to Alcatraz. Daughter was only 5 and we felt she wasn’t ready to visit. I am so glad you played tourist and grateful that you intersected with Mr. Luke. What a lesson in his story – powerful that he could forgive himself.

I agree with Ayala. Lovely post.


3 One Love Around the World: Janny T. May 24, 2012 at 8:20 am

Just discovered The Halfway Point and glad I did! Thank you for this I have never been to Frisco though I hear there’s lots of people with flowers in their hair, but probably not on “The Rock” LOL! Thank you for the gorgeous insight



4 Cecilia May 24, 2012 at 8:43 am

We’ve never been to Alcatraz, been reluctant because we’ve always thought that the heaviness of the place would be a bit too much to endure. But when speaking with a park ranger last January (we took the Candlelight Tour of Ft. Mason) he highly recommended visiting Alcatraz specifically in the daytime in order to access more places, appreciate the views, the layout, etc. So of course, now, a visit to The Rock is on the list.
Great post!


5 Elliot May 26, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Never been there but I would love too. I’m jealous of you living in such a beautiful and liberal place.


6 Robin May 27, 2012 at 8:22 am

It’s funny how when you live so close to places tourists flock to, you never seem to visit them yourself. We have had a very similar experience with Philadelphia (although I have seen many of the historic places as a child). The one place we have visited in the three years since we moved back to this area – a prison. Eastern State Penitentiary is very old, and the conditions the prisoners endured when it was first built were horrible. Almost everyone was kept in solitary confinement, so they could think about their crimes, and become penitent.

It is very cool that you were able to meet a former prisoner, who had the courage to tell his story, and return to a place that probably holds bad memories for him.


7 Talon May 31, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Belinda, how neat that you got to meet a someone who knew Alcatraz in a way few people ever would. And you’re so right – to be able to turn your life around, to share the wisdom gained with the world is remarkable.

The view from the island must have been something.

It’s always interesting to play “tourist” in your own back yard. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve taken in local sights and have always been amazed when so many locals haven’t experienced them.


8 brian miller June 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm

i imagine the island to be a very sobering place…what a meeting too in finding that guy…would have been chilling to hear his story i imagine….


9 Sara June 3, 2012 at 5:01 am

Belinda — It must have been fun to visit an historic site in your own backyard. I bet the views were magnificent. Were the gardens built by the prisoners? I know very little about Alcatraz, but I do know it must not have been a good place to end up.

Meeting Mr. Luke brings home the story of Alcatraz and prisons. Many people who commit crimes, serve their time and never get in serious trouble again. Mr. Luke shows people can change. We need to remember this:~)

Thanks for sharing your visit to The Rock.


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