Handsome and headstrong high school senior Oliver Priddy is on a downward path. A stint in reform school ends in murder when Oliver kills a vicious bully who brutally assaults him. Now he’s on his way to Pittsburgh’s notorious Riverview Penitentiary with a life sentence. A world away from his Catholic school upbringing, and determined to find hope at whatever cost, Oliver lands a job as a tutor in the prison’s education center, enrolls in college, and joins the boxing team. And because this is Riverview, he does all this with an improvised ice-pick hidden in his shoe.
Capable though he is of surviving Riverview’s tough environment, Oliver knows he needs help when he runs into the sociopathic predator Fat Daddy Petaway. Oliver dodges danger by making a quid pro quo deal with a Black Muslim named Champ, the most feared prisoner in the state: algebra lessons and marijuana in exchange for carte blanche protection.
Now that he can sleep with both eyes shut, Oliver spends the next five years searching for metaphysical clarity and transforming himself into a nationally-acclaimed scholar and teacher, finding sustenance in higher learning, self-discovery, and the arms of an older woman, the beautiful Professor B.J. Dallet.
Meantime, the cocaine epidemic and soaring crime rates of the 1980s lead to prison overcrowding, escalating violence and the arrival of a hard-nosed new warden who begins stripping away prisoner amenities and programs. While the militants and anarchists urge others to begin storing up razor blades, knives, and matches, Oliver fights back with a biting commentary in the lifers’ newsletter. Thrown into solitary confinement for his audacity and cut off from his supporters, Oliver finds his carefully plotted academic career, and the hope it brings, threatened. And without hope, a lifer has nothing.