November 01, 1982 12:00 PM

Driving across the Braga Bridge into Fall River, Mass., Jerry Sousa lifts his tattooed right arm (“Born to Raise Hell”) and makes a sweeping gesture: “I owe it all to this town.” And he laughs. For Jerry, 40, is a classic fifth wheel, the square peg who has never fit into life’s round holes. Look up the word “rotten” in Webster’s and you’ll find a picture of Jerry Sousa. “I wasn’t rotten,” sniffs Sousa defensively. “But I did have the capacity for being rotten.”

Indeed. In 1964 he was convicted for the early morning killing during a $150 holdup of a Fall River bartender, who worked two jobs to support his family. Later the same day, Sousa was married. But at the reception, just as he and the former Donna Chavous joined hands to cut the wedding cake, police replaced the knife with the cuffs, and carried him off. Donna, who divorced Sousa four years later, now says wryly, “It did put a damper on the reception.”

And on his life. For the jury had found Sousa and two buddies guilty of the drunken first-degree killing (predictably, Sousa says he didn’t do it; that he only clubbed Eugene Thibeault, 45, with a .22 caliber nine-shot revolver). The trio was saved from the electric chair by the jury’s recommendation of mercy. Then 17 years later, in January 1981, Massachusetts Gov. Edward King granted Sousa a commutation. King was spurred not only by spirit but by the uproar over Sousa’s prison treatment that made Jerry a national symbol of prison abuse.

It was learned he had spent 10 of his years in prison in isolation or solitary, often going months without seeing anyone. One of his main offenses: writing letters complaining about prison conditions and how lousy rehabilitation was. Says Sousa, “I was so naive. I thought the prison system would welcome my ideas.” It didn’t.

So horrendous was the evidence against the state that Sousa was awarded payment totaling $27,500 following a 1978 jury trial in federal court. The jury found that employees of the Massachusetts Department of Correction were guilty of beating Sousa, otherwise mistreating him and, specifically, holding him illegally in solitary. The Walpole deputy superintendent, Fred Butterworth, also was found deeply involved, including censoring Sousa’s outgoing mail. Butterworth subsequently was promoted to deputy commissioner. Butterworth won’t talk but one tight-lipped correction official says, “We graciously commuted Sousa’s sentence, wished him the best of luck, and that’s all we will say.” Says Sousa of his confinement, “They were the most horrible years of my life and the most beautiful. Look at the knowledge I gained. I guess you could say I was overcompensated.”

Six months of Sousa’s solitary incarceration were spent in the facility at Bridgewater, Mass., where Sousa had no bed (for four months), no toilet, no nothing. Since conditions were similar in the cell above, the urine and excrement would drip down on Sousa. “I was living in a toilet,” he says. “I started identifying with the shit on the wall. I began thinking, ‘I belong here.’ But somehow, a little spark in me started to grow and I told myself, ‘I must feel better about myself. I am beautiful and okay. These people who are doing this to me are despicable and ugly.’ ” That spark was fanned by a book, The Mature Mind, by H.A. Overstreet, whose thesis is that the crux of the world’s ills is there are too many infantile minds. It was sent to Jerry by a friend, and Sousa says, “It taught me about the power of the mind and how it is just sitting there waiting to be tapped.”

Jerry Sousa’s climb from nowhere had started. In 1970, while at a prison in Concord—one of four he was shuffled through—he spotted a dump truck full of encyclopedias on their way to destruction. He was able to save them. He started reading. “My mind was no longer in solitary,” he says, “just my body. Right away, I learned a lot about the aardvark.” In 1971, he earned his high school equivalency diploma when a guard tipped him off that the test was being given.

He kept reading. And in 1974, while languishing again in Walpole’s solitary, another friend arranged for him to take an aptitude test. Anthropology proved his strong suit. That interest was relayed to Nate Raymond, now an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, who started visiting as a tutor. Says Raymond, “Jerry wondered a lot about why people behave like they do.” Jerry also learned. “I know now,” says Sousa, “that I am the end product of 3.5 billion years of evolution.” He kept reading.

Enter, later in 1974, one Donna Parker, 30, who was editor of the now defunct New England Prisoners’ Association Journal. She wanted to interview and write about somebody articulate in solitary, and Jerry was produced as Exhibit A. First she found him interesting, then she found she loved him. Sousa recalls, “We were united by our struggles, hers in the feminist movement and mine to get out of prison.” In 1980, they were married. That seemed a fitting exclamation point, since it was Donna who was primarily responsible for advancing his general interest in anthro into a degree-seeking endeavor through a special program at U. Mass. Tutors and instructors trekked to Sousa’s knee.

Last year he was asked to speak to a class at the school on prisons. “Right away,” says Wally Silva, director of a human services program at U. Mass., “the students sensed his honesty and truth, and that’s all teaching is. His message clearly is that life is hard but not impossible.” On his release in January 1981, Sousa arrived in Amherst to finish his undergraduate work (he received the degree in September) and was asked by Silva to teach a class, which Sousa entitled “Prisons as a Microcosm of Society.” There was nary a complaint from anyone on the crook cum prof.

The students love him. The class max was set at 25; there are 42 enrolled and attendance is nearly 100 percent. Exults sophomore Sherry Albert, “For me to hear firsthand from the criminal is best for me.” His revelations pop eyes as he talks about prison life, including the drugs and sex, and, most of all, of how fouled up he thinks this country’s system of law and order is and how it can be improved.

Meanwhile, Sousa plans graduate work in anthropology, hopes for a teaching career, and is encouraged that the wheels are turning, albeit slowly, around U. Mass., which may produce more classes for him to command. Of his relatively new brainpower, Sousa says, “Knowledge is strength and the enemy is ignorance. With all my time in isolation, you reach the point where you have nothing left but yourself. Then the genius comes out.”

These days, he’s applying his genius to speaking out actively in a Massachusetts campaign to defeat a measure on the Nov. 2 ballot that would reinstate the death penalty. “Nobody is beyond redemption and rehabilitation,” says Sousa. “Look at me.” The chairman of the drive, Boston attorney Max Stern, who is also now Sousa’s lawyer, says that because the death penalty was on the books in 1964, “Jerry is exactly the kind of person who could have been executed.”

And, it could be argued, for good cause. For until now, his entire life has been misspent. He was born in a cold-water walk-up above Duffy’s Drug in depressing Fall River, a tiny two-bedroom shelter inhabited by nine people. At age 4, his marbles were stolen from him on the street and he got the message then that life might not be equitable. His mother, Maria, is a God-fearing lady who says, “My son Jerry has always been a good boy.” Jerry’s late father, Manual, however, was an alcoholic womanizer with a penchant for violence. Once, when both of young Jerry’s arms were in casts and his jaw wired as a result of a car accident that killed one of his brothers, Gabe, the old man attacked him. “He always wished Gabe had survived that wreck instead of me,” says Sousa.

On the day he was 16, he says he was told by the principal of Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School, “Get your hat and coat and get out of here for good.” Said Jerry lamely, “I don’t wear a hat.” Shortly thereafter, he was sent to a Shirley, Mass. reformatory for stealing a car. Subsequently, he did a stretch for breaking into a laundromat, then time for a barroom brawl in Newport, R.I. that he thinks he would have settled decisively if his Saturday Night Special had not slipped from his grasp. Then came the killing at Padden’s Cafe. “Who would figure,” says Sousa, looking out of his apartment near Amherst, which, ironically, is located over a laundromat, “that a .22 would kill such a big man?” A .22 through the heart will do that.

Much of Sousa’s prison time was spent in Walpole, long considered one of the most violent joints in the nation. Sousa has a long scar on his chin, the result of being ambushed with a mop ringer; the back of his head is scarred from being assaulted with an oak scrub brush. He continually fought off gang rapes. He witnessed other inmates being set on fire, stabbed to death (once because a radio was too loud) and beaten to a pulp by an inmate armed with a bag full of padlocks. “No life has worth in prison,” he says.

Everywhere he saw things he didn’t like. Like the mice all over Walpole (“Actually, I thought they were cute until they started eating my legal papers. I was told we couldn’t have mousetraps because we’d make zip guns out of them”) and the huge swamp rats at Concord (“I’d sleep with a pipe in my hand and kill them when they’d come up out of the toilet”). Then there were the wholesale drugs being smuggled inside by the guards of which he partook heartily for a time.

But most of all, Sousa feels prisons just don’t work. “If they did,” he says logically, “crime would be going down.” He considers that he rehabilitated himself in spite of the system and jokes, “After 17 years, I am now qualified to make license plates in any state prison in the nation.” In fact, he thinks the idea of being able to scare potential offenders straight is nonsense, especially to the underclass. He explains, “When you do a crime, you’re thinking you’re not gonna get caught. For street people, prison is just an obstacle to overcome. You cannot correct with punishment. Prisons are just universities of crime.”

But, Jerry, didn’t you get what you deserved?

“When cons get out, they give society what it deserves for giving them what they deserve. And it goes round and round. The question is, is society being served by the prison system or is it detrimental? You get sent up and it’s a challenge to beat the place and to come out just the way you were.”

Instead of what he calls the “might makes right” philosophy of justice, Sousa suggests possible alternatives:

•Confrontation between the victim and the offender after the crime. He says he and his co-defendants should have been taken to the funeral of their victim in shackles and forced to listen to the sorrow they created. “If I had had to do that, oh wow…” says Sousa, softly, still shaken by the memories. “If I had had to look in their eyes…” He falls silent, then says, “The way it is now, I carry the burden of guilt and they carry the burden of hate.”

•Restitution rather than retribution. Says Sousa, “We should have been charged with taking care of that man’s family for life. We should have been made to replace him as head of the household.”

•No set sentences for particular crimes. Rather, he thinks individual cases require individual sentences; in his case no more than five years behind bars.

•Make the offender serve the time in the community in which the crime occurred. During that time, says Sousa, he would be facing people he had hurt and would learn of the far-reaching consequences of his actions.

•Extensively test the cons to see where their strengths are.

To those who might think his suggestions glib or incredibly dumb, Sousa counters, “Things have reached the point where we should try any change.”

All in Sousa’s life isn’t idyllic. Notably, his marriage to Donna Parker is on very big rocks—they are separated. Says Donna, “The goal was to get him out of prison and we thought after that, everything would be perfect. We were wrong.” Sousa adds, “She was overly protective and I didn’t need to be mothered. We’re both looking carefully at our lives.”

Other adjustments outside haven’t been hard for Sousa, although paying bills and keeping appointments are not his strengths. No longer, for example, does he insist on sitting with his back to the wall. “He’s beginning to understand,” says Donna, “that in prison everything is black or white. You’re right or wrong, you survive or you don’t. Then when you get out, you find most of the areas are gray and survival isn’t a big issue. Jerry doesn’t have it all together but I know lots of 40-year-olds who don’t have it all together and they have no excuse.”

There is still a lot of the prison loner in Jerry and a shyness. He blends in with the free world just fine but knows he has got to earn his way. But might he someday find himself walking back through prison doors, which too often are of the revolving type? “Sure,” he says, “when I’m taking students with me on a tour.”

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