Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book review: Harrowing tale of life behind bars remarkably even-handed

By Bill Williams

Wilbert Rideau was‭ ‬19‭ ‬when he impulsively decided to rob a bank in Lake Charles,‭ ‬La.,‭ ‬so he could flee to a new life on the West Coast.‭ ‬The botched‭ ‬1961‭ ‬robbery ended with Rideau taking three hostages.‭ ‬In the ensuing chaos he fatally shot and stabbed a female bank teller.

Rideau was black and the victim was white,‭ ‬and a seething mob nearly lynched him.‭ ‬He was quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

In the Place of Justice is Rideau’s meticulous account of his‭ ‬44‭ ‬years behind bars,‭ ‬during which he became a model prisoner and won national awards for his work as editor of a prison magazine.

Rideau describes the brutal reality of rape,‭ ‬gangs and violence inside Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary,‭ ‬regarded for years as the most violent prison in America.‭ ‬Between‭ ‬1972‭ ‬and‭ ‬1975,‭ ‬some‭ ‬67‭ ‬inmates were fatally stabbed and another‭ ‬350‭ ‬suffered knife wounds.

The author documents the racism that pervaded Louisiana’s justice system.‭ ‬In the parish where he was convicted,‭ ‬every black‭ ‬person‭ ‬accused of killing a white person between‭ ‬1889‭ ‬and‭ ‬1976‭ ‬was sent to death row.‭ ‬Whites who murdered whites during the same period were sentenced to death less than‭ ‬25‭ ‬percent of the time.‭ ‬Rideau was convicted in three successive trials by all white juries,‭ ‬but each conviction was overturned on appeal.

At a fourth trial in‭ ‬2005,‭ ‬a mixed-race jury found Rideau guilty of manslaughter instead of premeditated murder,‭ ‬and because he had already served more than the‭ ‬21-year maximum for manslaughter,‭ ‬he was set free.

When Rideau entered prison,‭ ‬he was an angry young man with little formal education,‭ ‬but he began to read books,‭ ‬which‭ “‬helped me survive the maddening monotony and boredom of the cell.‭”

He started to write and founded a newsletter for black inmates.‭ ‬Angola’s warden invited Rideau to become editor of the‭ ‬Angolite,‭ ‬a bimonthly prison magazine.

Over the course of two decades,‭ ‬Rideau turned the magazine into a publication that won national honors for its investigative reports about prison conditions.‭ ‬He wrote a piece titled‭ ‬The Horror Show documenting how inmates were burned and perhaps tortured by a faulty electric chair used for executions at Angola.‭ ‬Another exposé documented the plight of inmates who were blind,‭ ‬paralyzed or otherwise severely disabled and yet were routinely denied pardons.‭ ‬The article led to the release of about‭ ‬20‭ ‬men.

He became a correspondent for National Public Radio and flew to Washington,‭ ‬D.C.,‭ ‬to address a convention of newspaper editors.

Rideau won the trust of inmates and officials alike.‭ ‬He was given wide freedom inside and outside the penitentiary,‭ ‬and became the beneficiary of enlightened prison leadership,‭ ‬which allowed him to publish critical articles without censorship,‭ ‬a unique arrangement in an American prison.

And yet his repeated bids for freedom failed.‭ ‬Year after year successive governors rejected commutation,‭ ‬even as scores of other murderers were freed.‭ ‬Rideau believes it had more to do with politics than anything else.‭ ‬Governors feared the public’s ire if they released a convict involved in a high-profile,‭ ‬black-on-white crime in a community with a virulent racist history.

Rideau comes across as truthful,‭ ‬remorseful,‭ ‬and straightforward.‭ “‬I had been defined as criminal,‭” ‬he writes,‭ “‬but I knew I wasn’t an evil or monstrous person,‭ ‬despite my crime.‭”

In the Place of Justice is remarkably even-handed and generous.‭ ‬Rideau said he never could have accomplished what he did without the help of many guards and prison officials.‭ ‬Guards loaned him books,‭ ‬and officials granted him wide latitude to pursue stories without interference.

After his release,‭ ‬the author married Linda LaBranche,‭ ‬who had befriended him and fought for his release.‭ ‬Now in his late‭ ‬60s,‭ ‬Rideau soaks up the little joys of daily life,‭ ‬such as being‭ “‬mesmerized by the aerial artistry‭” ‬of hummingbirds in his back yard.

‭“‬Having so long dwelled in a hellish place,‭” ‬he writes,‭ “‬I recognize paradise when I see it.‭”‬ ‭ ‬ ‭

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for‭ ‬The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

In the Place of Justice:‭ ‬A Story of Punishment and Deliverance,‭ ‬by Wilbert Rideau‭; ‬Knopf‭; ‬366‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$26.95

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