SIDE OF THE WALL
E-Mail by Arthur DeTullio Bio/Address
THE PROFESSOR LEARNS
ON LIFE AND TRUTH
The Professor was a pudgy,
middle aged Ph.D. serving eighteen to twenty years for killing a whore. He had loved her,
or at least he believed he had', but that didn't stop him from caving in her skull with a
Prior to entering prison the Professor had lived a privileged life. With his wife and two daughters they had resided in the most reclusive enclaves of greater Boston. But city geography is a fickle thing. Newspaper accounts of the killing showed how the Professor's beautiful home was only a fifteen minute drive from the gritty streets of the Combat Zone; the sex district where his expensive paramour worked in the chromatic shadows of the neon tinted sidewalks.
After the murder, of course, his address was radically altered. Ms new mailman worked the three to eleven shift at Walpole, and answered to the name of "Screw."
The Professor had a hard time adjusting to life on the inside. Too many years of privilege, too many years of living in neighborhoods where the police addressed him as "Sir," had made him totally unprepared for the jungle. On the social scoreboard of "Us and Them," he had spent his entire life as an "Us." It was a bitter path that led him into "Them."
So I suppose it was natural for him to feel his true allegiance lay with the guards and the administration. He held himself above the prison's general population, preferring the conversation of cops over convicts. What came natural to him, though, also made him an outcast among the prisoners he had to live with.
The Professor knew every guard in Walpole on a first name basis. He knew the names of most of their wives. He knew when the Warden's birthday was. He greeted them all with a "good morning" at the beginning of each day, and a "good night" as they made their way home. He played the game. He was also blissfully unaware of the fact that many of the guards despised him. Just because he saw himself as better than the test of the prisoners didn't mean his view was universally shared.
So adept did the Professor play the game that he landed a job as the Warden's personal clerk. Somehow around this time he found out that I was a college graduate, and he spoke to me from time to time. My degree bestowed some sort of worthy status on me as far as he was concerned. One day in the library he told me that the politicking that went on in the prison's administrative hierarchy really wasn't any different from the academic world he had left behind.
It was amusing to watch the Professor when he took his daily walks around the yard. In all my years in prison, he was the only con I'd ever seen who walked the track in wingtips. There was something obscenely incongruous about those expensive shoes poking out from a pair of state pants. He held court with a small contingent of known stool pigeons and child molesters. A little leper colony within the walls of Walpole who banded together out of empathy and fear. Among this band of outcasts, the Professor was their captain, ordering them about with an arrogance VOM of his past life and his position as the Warden's pet.
The Professor always refused to accept that he belonged in prison. At the time of his conviction he told the court that the killing was an accident. In his own mind I am sure he believed that, although he offered no explanation as to how he completely crushed her skull with a hammer "accidentally."
There was also the matter of some embezzling charges. The Professor had stolen over one-hundred thousand dollars in research funds from his department in order to finance his illicit romance. When asked, the defense he offered was that she "beguiled" him. But in the grand history of incarceration he was hardly the first convicted felon to blame his victim for his demise.
After eight years of the most obsequious servility to the prison administration, it surprised none of us when the Professor made a parole his first time up. The Warden himself walked him to the front gate on the day he was released. I was as certain as I was indifferent to the assumption that our paths would never cross again. So my surprise was genuine when, nine months later, I saw him walking down the main corridor of the prison with a "new man" bed roll under his arm.
It took me a few weeks to put the story together. The Professor, who barely associated with his fellow prisoners before, was practically a hermit this time around. He rarely left his cell except to eat. The few times I did see him, his entire demeanor was changed. He had aged terribly in only nine moths. His walk, once arrogant, was now the stooped shuffle of a broken man.
The outside world had changed on the Professor after eight years. Life had turned against him. He found out that, while his education and personality may have set him above many prisoners, to the world he went back into he was just another ex-con. And a killer to boot.
A newspaper reporter wrote an article on the fact that the Professor only served eight years on his sentence. A sister of the dead prostitute ran around making a lot of noise to who ever would listen about "the failure of the system." Ms wife, long estranged, filed for divorce. To his daughters he was a public humiliation. The best job he could find, after heading a multi-million dollar research department for ten years, was assistant manager of an all night convenience store. As far as his parole officer was concerned he should have gotten life. He would get no favors there. And then he got arrested.
The charge was a transparent travesty. The Professor had been pulled over one night because his car, a late model white Ford, matched the description of a car used in the robbery of a liquor store. The robbery had been committed by three Hispanic men in their mid-to-late twenties,, and they had already confessed. The Professor was still held as a suspect for twenty-four hours before the district attorney ad emitted that he wasn't involved. By then, however, it no longer mattered. Before he even made it home the Professor's parole officer was on his way to arrest him again for parole violation.
When an ex-convict is on parole, even being detained by the police is grounds for violation. Guilty or not guilty are not relevant to the proceedings. There is no avenue of recourse. If the Pope himself came to court and testified that the ex-con was having coffee with his Holiness when the crime occurred it did not matter in the eyes of the law.
The same members of the parole board who had smiled to his face a scant nine months earlier sat across from him at his revocation hearing. They informed him in their imperious tones that he was responsible for this violation, not the system. He had been charged with a crime. As far as they were concerned that meant he had to be guilty of something. They didn't give a damn about his problems, his past, or even his innocence. He was just another ex-con parole violator. They had his ass back in Walpole before they even broke for lunch.
The first fact that the Professor had to face upon his return was a new Warden. The old one had been reassigned only a few months after he went out on his parole. Without the Warden's grace, those guards who despised the Professor before now went out of their way to make his life miserable.
The Professor was given a lesson that most prisoners knew instinctively. Coming to prison did more than just deprive him of his freedom. It stamped him with the criminal equivalent of the Mark of Cain. He was forever an ex-convict with all the fear and loathing that the title brought with it.
After he had been back a few months I saw the Professor outside on the yard one Saturday afternoon. It was one of those crisp October days that only occur in New England; when the air is sharp enough to shave with, the sun blazes in a cold and cloudless sky, and you can feel the crush of winter waiting just around the comet. There were no polished wingtips on his feet. He wore an old pair of sneakers unraveling at the seams. Even his little entourage had abandoned him. The lepers had found some new Messiah to heal their offensiveness.
I was sitting with my back against the handball court enjoying the sun on my face. On the other side of the wall, the tops of the trees exploded in a riot of autumnal color. In prison, the trees have no trunks. Only tops that appear to rise night out of the wall if you stare up at the right angle. I watched the lone figure of the Professor make his way slowly around the track. There was a weariness to his step, a drag to his spirit, that I had witnessed in many men during my years inside the world of stone. It was the aura of a man who has been broken. A man who has abandoned not only the hope of something more, but even the desire.
He stopped in front of me and stood staring out over the wall for a moment.
"It never really changes, does it," he said.
The statement was colored with the hint of a question. He was speaking of far more than merely the wall, or the view, or even the routine of prison.
"Never does," I agreed.
He nodded his head a few times in assent and stood silent for a few moments longer. I waited to see if he had more to say, but he only turned and resumed his circumnavigation of the yard.
I didn't think too much about the encounter or the question for a few days. Not until Tuesday, when breakfast was forty minutes late because the screw making morning count found the Professor hanging from the bars of his cell.
The desolation of prison can be a terrible thing. It sweeps into your soul and turns it as hard and cold as the landscape of the yard and the wall. When the Professor lost hope he also lost reason, and made the only change his withered spirit allowed him to see.
VISITS Since 1/1/99