A Jesuit Who Reached Out to Hardened Criminals

Father BushFather Bernard Bush, S.J., assisted Father James Tupy, S.J., on Alcatraz from 1958-1962 when Father Bernard was a Jesuit theology student. While not yet a priest, the convicts called him “Father.”

Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Los Altos, CA, on June 28, 2013.

1. Were you ever afraid while on Alcatraz?
  No. The convicts liked me. I brought them news from the outside and I wasn’t a guard. I felt protected. The guards were nervous about me being there. While I was in the prison yard, I would look up and they would have their guns trained generally in the direction where I was with the men gathered around me.
2. What were the convicts like?
  They were hard people. Tough. When I got to know them they were friendly but I had no illusions about what their lives had been like before Alcatraz. One prisoner I became friendly with was Paul “Frankie” Carbo who I later found out was a member of Murder, Inc.*

*Murder, Inc. was a name given to a group of contract murderers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Murder, Inc., was the muscle behind the Mafia.

3. You were a swimmer and the swimming coach at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. You said this made you popular with the inmates. Is that just a joke?
  Oh, no. They were dead serious about their interest in swimming. They asked all kinds of questions about the water temperature, the currents, the tides, the sharks. The guards told them there were man-eating sharks in the water but I let them know that wasn’t true. Not in the Bay. It was too shallow.
4. Did the convicts have any pets on Alcatraz?
  One convict had a mouse named Stumpy who had no front legs. He was trained when the convict would rap on the table twice, he would run up his sleeve and into his pocket.
5. While on Alcatraz you became close friends with a prisoner named Larry Trumblay. Can you tell us a bit about that?
  One day I was in the recreation yard where the men were playing cards, playing handball, lifting weights and walking around. One man had his eyes closed, sunning himself. He was a tough looking guy. I introduced myself to him and struck up a conversation. I asked him what he did, which you’re not supposed to do since it is against prison etiquette. He said: “They told me I held up some banks.” Later, when I mentioned to Warden Madigan that I had talked to Trumblay, Madigan said: “You’re wasting your time with him.” The warden showed me his “rap sheet”. He had not earned any good time in the years he had been there because he was involved in one scrape or another.
6. Did you continue to visit with Trumblay?
  Yes, I always made a point of visiting with him even when he was in “The Hole.”(The disciplinary cells on Alcatraz called the “TU”, Treatment Unit.) One day he said he’d like to repay my visit. I said to him: “If you come to San Francisco dripping wet, forget it.”
7. But you stayed friends?
  Yes, I have about fifty or sixty letters from Trumblay. Even after Alcatraz closed, we stayed friends. From Alcatraz, Larry was sent to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, and eventually he was paroled. We got permission from the Attorney General of the United States for him to come to California. So on June 4, 1965, Larry was at my ordination. He gave me something that day to remember him and the boys by. It was an alb**, which he had designed and crocheted in his cell at Alcatraz. I wore it for my ordination and first Mass.

** A special religious garment worn by priests

8. Now you are a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, what is the main difference in the kind of spiritual assistance you give now versus what you did while on Alcatraz?
  On Alcatraz I wasn’t trying to guide or convert, only to be a friend. Now, in my work my conversation is more focused on God.

Father Bernard Bush, S.J., is a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos.


Toughest Convict on the Rock

Robert Luke, Alcatraz convict #1118, was on the island from 1954-1959. Alcatraz was his sixth prison. No trouble with the law since Alcatraz.

Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Cotati, CA, on February 23, 2013

Robert Luke

1. While on Alcatraz, did you dream of being free?
  All the time.
2. Were you afraid during your years on Alcatraz?
  Never. I had a reputation for being extremely violent. People were careful around me. The only time I was afraid on Alcatraz was when I came back a few years ago and the ranger asked me to speak to the public.
3. What did you do to pass the time on Alcatraz?
  I read two or three books a week. (Checked out from the cell house library). I like history. I must have read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three or four times. When I read a book, I actually become a part of it. My imagination helped, too. Sometimes I would take a trip up in my head.
4. Did you ever play baseball in the Rec Yard on Alcatraz?
  Yes. I was a fielder. There was only one fielder as we had six-man teams. There was no room in the recreation yard for more.
5. What happened when the ball went over the wall?
  If it went over the right field wall it was an automatic out. If it went over the center field wall it was a home run. If it went on the roof of the cell house it was good for two bases.
6. You have said your cell was “the size of a pool table “did it ever feel like home?
  No. We called it our house, but not a home.
7. I’ve heard you say that you didn’t seriously consider an escape from Alcatraz because as a US Navy man you understood how difficult it would be to swim to freedom given the currents in the bay and the temperature of the water. If you were to plan an escape from Alcatraz, how would you do it?
  The only chance would be if you worked outside. I was never allowed to work outside because I was an escape risk. The last warden was lax. He didn’t check the cells. That’s one of the reasons the (1962) escape happened.
8. What question do you get asked the most?
  Did you know Al Capone?
9. Capone died before your time on Alcatraz, of course.
  Yes. But if I had been in prison with him, I would have kept my distance. I stayed away from connected criminals because they often have influence over the police or the guards.
10. But you knew Machine Gun Kelly, right?
  Yes, he played bridge on the recreation yard.
11. Did you have visits on Alcatraz?
  Only one. I didn’t like visits because they reminded me too much of what it was like outside.
12. What was your worst day on Alcatraz?
  My worst days were the 29 days I spent in the disciplinary cells on Alcatraz.
13. Did you ever see the kids who lived on the island?
  No.
14. What jobs did you have while on Alcatraz?
  I worked in the mess hall, the laundry and the glove shop.
15. Did you ever see contraband come through the laundry?
 

No. They searched all the laundry. But if you wanted something, you could get it.

In your book, you mention the fact that you were a good student. School was always easy for you.

16. What do you think made you cross the line and begin stealing?
  The excitement. I got carried away. I met someone who was doing it and the life just sounded exciting to me. It becomes easier the more you do it.
17. Why do you think you ended up on Alcatraz?
  I made the wrong choices. We are all born with the ability to make our own choices. But once you make the wrong choice, other people make your decisions for you.
18. Are there any Alcatraz movies that are accurate?
  If there was a completely true movie about prison, no one would go to it because it would be so boring. It’s the boredom that gets you.
19. You were one of the few men who were released directly from Alcatraz. How did it feel to leave?
  The colors and immense distances seemed astounding. I had just come from a place that had no color, and the farthest you could walk in one direction was less than 100 yards. The whole experience was really overwhelming.

I felt better on the plane because it was a confined space.*

*Answer directly from Entombed In Alcatraz

20. What would you tell a kid growing up today?
  Go to school. Learn to read. The literacy rate of cons is so high. Make the right choices.
21.

I’ve heard you say that since your years on Alcatraz you’ve never been in any trouble. Though you write you had: “a hair-trigger temper.” You wrote a powerful poem about this which is on the back cover of your book.

 

A Lament

That dark man
Still lives
Deep inside me
Waiting
But his armor
Is rusting
And he will soon
Deteriorate
Into dust
And so will
I

—Robert Luke

22. How did you manage your temper after Alcatraz?
  It took time. I learned to walk away from an argument before trouble started. I had a few problems with it, but gradually I gained control.
23. After Alcatraz, did you dream about being in jail?
  Yes. For fifty-one years I dreamt about prison. The prison dreams only stopped when I went back to Alcatraz and began speaking to the public about my experience. Before that, only my family and my best friend knew.
24. In your book, you talk about the epiphany you had while on Alcatraz. You say that you realized “the truth, that no one was responsible for my actions but me.” If you could offer words of wisdom to your 14-year-old self, what would they be?
  Your choices will get you in trouble if you make the wrong ones. If you make a wrong choice, pull your foot back.

Criminal history prior to Alcatraz: robbing banks, burglary, car theft and assault.

Sent to Alcatraz for attempted escape at Leavenworth.

No trouble with the law after Alcatraz. He has lived a happy, productive life for the last 54 years.

Author of Entombed on Alcatraz