by Sister Helen Prejean, author, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents

In my introduction to Dead Man Walking, I discussed two situations that make for interesting stories: when an extraordinary person is plunged into the commonplace, and when an ordinary person gets involved in extraordinary events. After reading Incorrigible, I believe there’s a third situation: when a not-so-ordinary person finds himself in a not-so-common place.

Patrick Middleton fits into this category because he had more opportunities in his young life than most of the death row prisoners I’ve come to know over the past twenty-five years: he attended a fine Catholic school where he was showered with love and attention from the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and he had a plethora of loving relatives and understanding counselors, juvenile probation officers, and judges who tried to help him along the way. Sadly, he was unable to shake off the darkness and volatility that existed in his home environment.

Perhaps the most tragic irony of all was when he believed after being stabbed three times by attempted rapists, that he had to escape from prison before he ended up killing someone, and less than twenty-four hours after he climbed inside a trash truck and got away, he committed a murder during a senseless robbery.

While trying to hot-wire a car, Patrick was confronted by the owner, who screamed. In an effort to quiet her and take away her keys, Patrick struck her in the head with a piece of pipe. He took her keys and wallet and stole her car. Tragically, she died two days later from the blunt force trauma to her head.

Patrick was on the lam for several days before he was apprehended by the FBI in Washington, DC, and returned to Pennsylvania. He eventually pleaded guilty to the robbery and second degree murder charges and received a life sentence. The judge ordered that he serve his sentence behind the walls of Western Penitentiary on the north side on the city of Pittsburgh. As far as society and his family were concerned, his life was over now.

But something extraordinary happened to him in his first year at Western. As he was passing through the stages of despair that most prisoners with a fresh life sentence endure, Patrick made a profound discovery:

Alone in my cell at night, stuck in a mire of self-pity and despair, I cried like a baby as I relived my past and contemplated a hopeless future. That I had taken another person’s life in a stupid, stupid act and felt overwhelming guilt and shame, that I had been ostracized by society and my very own family, these things were only part of what made me think about taking my own life. Every night there was a growing restlessness stirring inside me, the kind that stirs when you know something’s terribly wrong, but you can’t put your finger on what it is. At times, I thought I was losing my mind.

Surely it would be better to be dead, I thought than to spend the next fifteen years—for that was the average time in those days that a prisoner served on a life sentence—living under such hopeless circumstances. The idea of escaping again was completely out of the question, for it was clear to me that to do so would only make my life more miserable than it already was; that is to say that, even if I were to succeed in escaping again, I was aware that I couldn’t escape from myself. (From I Shade My Laurels: The Memoir of a Prison Scholar a work in progress and the sequel to Incorrigible.)

One day while he was exploring his new environment, Patrick found himself climbing the stairs of the second floor of a converted warehouse, where the University of Pittsburgh had set up its prison-branch campus. He peered into classrooms, read the advertisements and notices on the bulletin boards, and watched a prisoner as he painted a giant mural of a cathedral of learning on the wall in the main corridor.

As Patrick mingled among the other prisoners, what amazed him the most was how the professors and graduate students from the main campus interacted so freely with the prisoners.  He would soon learn that these professors and students had carte blanche to come and go morning, noon, and night.

Patrick didn’t go unnoticed for very long that morning. When an administrator from the university asked him if he was there to register, he said he wasn’t sure. But then he spent the next two hours filling out Pell grant and new-student application forms. This marked the beginning of a most extraordinary journey that lasted for the next twelve years.

Almost immediately, Patrick distinguished himself in his classes with his eagerness for learning and his ability to grasp new concepts. He finished his first year at the top of the freshman class and was inducted into the national freshman honor society, Phi Eta Sigma. As remarkable as his academic achievements were- he earned straight A’s! – his personal growth and development were even more extraordinary:

All my life it had been easy to be enthusiastic about some new experience, only to grow bored and lose interest completely after the novelty wore off. That never happened to me when it came to learning. Every night I studied and wrote for four to five hours. What I read about in my psychology and literature courses, I wrote about in my journals as the concepts and topics pertained to my own interests and experiences. My hunger for understanding was ferocious.

In my own coursework, I would begin with a syllabus to follow, and in no time some secondary topic would beckon me to follow. It was in an introductory psychology course, for example, that I was first introduced to the term existentialism: the twentieth-century branch of philosophy that stresses that man is what he makes himself and is also responsible for what he makes of himself. “How can I live the remainder of my life so as not to consider myself a complete failure?” That was the question that guided my daily living.

I have had the privilege of reading excerpts from Patrick’s journals describing these years, and what amazed me more than anything was how he beat the commonwealth out of punishment it had meted out to him. Here he was supposed to be doing hard time among hardened men, but, instead, he had turned his prison into a college. He made friends with students on the main campus. His professors took a personal interest in not just his intellectual growth, but also in his personal and spiritual development.

He also started seeing a prison psychologist, who taught him about transactional analysis and the art of introspection. His entire family came back into his life, which led him back to the Church and into the confessional for the first time since childhood. When his father came to see him, Patrick was able to confront him about why he had abandoned the family, and from there they began to heal and become genuine friends. Patrick earned his bachelor of arts Degree (summa cum laude) in English in 1983, graduating in the top two percent of a senior class of close to two thousand students.  He also earned an $1,800 chancellor’s undergraduate scholarship award as a senior, and used that money to help pay his first year’s tuition in graduate school. While working on his master’s in language communication, he taught high school English and literature, and the university placed him under contract to teach undergraduate English composition and reading courses. From his teaching stipend, he paid the Department of Corrections 17 percent for his room and board.

Around this time, one of his graduate advisers, the internationally renowned reading specialist and author Dr. Harry Sartain, invited Patrick to conduct research with him. Together, they created the first language arts curriculum for adult learners in a prison environment. Other professors soon got wind of Patrick’s knack for conducting research and joined in with him. By the time he earned his Master’s , he had created an entire college-level learning skills component in reading and writing. He had also designed, administered, and evaluated a battery of placement tests for new students. Along the way, he won a prestigious teaching award in English and several small literary prizes.

In every stage of development as a graduate student, Patrick made a new contribution to the university’s undergraduate program. As he completed his statistical work in the School of Education’s doctoral program, he began to design and then teach to statistics courses to undergraduate psychology majors. His course was so highly praised by faculty members in the psychology department that they began to incorporate his exercises into their programs.

By the time he completed his experimental methods courses for his doctorate, he had attracted the attention of the chair of the psychology department, Dr. Donald McBurney, who invite Patrick to collaborate on the second edition of Dr. McBurney’s Experimental Psychology textbook. Patrick ended up writing the exercises for each chapter, and he was the senior author of the instructor’s manual that accompanied the textbook.

In 1990, Patrick Middleton became the first prisoner in the United States to earn his doctorate degree in a classroom setting (as opposed to through correspondence courses). He went on to assist in the third edition of Dr. McBurney’s textbook, and he was again the senior author of the new instructor’s manual and test battery for the third edition.

It has been seventeen years since Patrick graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and left the world of college academia. Over the years he has continued to grasp all he can from life. In the early ‘90s, he sang with a popular oldies group called the House of Relics that appeared on commercial radio stations and on PBS, and he once performed with the famous rhythm and blues group, the Marcels. He’s produced 20 musical events in prisons through the years, most recently a Doo Wop and R & B concert at Graterford with his band, the Fabulous Corvettes.

In 2004, his highly acclaimed self-help book, Healing Our Imprisoned Minds: A People’s Guide to Hope and Freedom, was published by Infinity Publishing. The book is being used in writing and alcohol and drug programs in several states. It has been so well received that it is about to go into a second edition. Presently, Patrick is working on the sequel to Incorrigible. This second memoir is called  I Shade My Laurels: the Memoir of a Prison Scholar.

In his journals, Patrick wrote that literature was his greatest passion and gift because it was through reading and vicarious experiences that he had learned to recognize a truth and internalize it.

Perhaps the one truth that saved his life and made a decent man out of him came from the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as recorded in Patrick’s journal: “Life is life everywhere. Life is in ourselves, not in the world that surrounds us.”

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