Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) is out doing some vandalism one night. He's cutting the heads off of parking meters. Well he gets picked up by the law and is sentenced to two years in prison. Now you have to understand Luke was not belligerent to the officers when he was picked up. He didn't resist arrest. He was just out having some fun. Heck, it didn't even look like he was drunk. He just wanted to cut off the heads of the meters.
Anyway, he arrives at the prison. It's a ramshackle, hole in the wall kind of place. In other words they weren't trying to reform anyone. It was a simple chain gang sort of place. The Captain (Strother Martin) had looked over Luke's army file He saw that he was once a Sargent and that he got out of the army as a private. Luke had got caught doing something he shouldn't have.
The prisoners head man was named Dragline (George Kennedy). Now at first Luke and Dragline didn't see eye to eye. So to settle who was what they had a boxing match. Luke never stood a chance. It was a good fight until well Luke just couldn't stand up anymore but he kept coming back for more. In other words Dragline won the fight but Luke won the war. The two became friends actually Dragline kind of admired Luke after that.
Luke had other things on his mind and hanging around was not one of them. At least until his mom passed away. He was a good prisoner and his mom came to visit him one day and she being ill passed away right after that. The Captain had him locked up until after her funeral. Soon as Luke got out of the box he started to escape.
Each time he would get caught and brought back. Each time he would go to the hole and he would escape again. Finally they made him dig a trench and fill it back in. Then he dug it again and filled it back in. He was beat. They had broke and he prayed to God for help. Luke even admitted to Dragline that they had beaten him. He became a model prisoner until one day a guard told him to bring up a truck and so Luke did and drove away.
Luke never wanted to a hero. He never wanted to be someones role model. He just wanted to be Luke.
Director Stuart Rosenberg delivered on a film that for most folks is a gift. Luke stood for many as a symbol off the screen. They showed with this film that for some prison was simply a place to the bidding of others. There was no reform in the system and for some it was the last place for a person to be on this planet. You see what this film showed was that " What we have here is a failure to communicate". Enjoy.