It’s incomprehensible to imagine what Wilbert Rideau, and prisoners like him, went through during his incarceration in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana. In an era where racial equality was non-existent, where 85% of the prison’s population were black – later that was reduced to an 80-20% ratio – and the prison run by “rednecks”, I find it miraculous that he managed not only to successfully educate himself but to rehabilitate to such a degree that made him the envy of many journalists and scholars in America.
By 1988 and having served four times longer than the national average for prisoners it became clear to Wilbert, if he hadn’t realised before, that he was being singled out for killing a white woman. When he was sentenced to death in 1962 he was one of 13 prisoners on death row in Angola – of those he remained the only prisoner who had not been released. According to James Gill, a columnist for the Times-Picayune, Rideau was victimised – I have to say on reading his memoirs and recollections I wholeheartedly agree with him.
“With probing intelligence but only a ninth-grade education, Rideau honed his acclaimed journalism skills inside Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. In 1961, at the age of 19, he killed a white woman in the course of a bank robbery. Sentenced to death, he was eventually given a life sentence after repeated appeals based on irregularities in his trial and national changes in policy regarding the death penalty. Rideau suffered years on death row and in solitary; once integrated into the broader population, he worked his way onto The Angolite, the prison publication.
Eventually becoming editor, he earned the respect of the warden, prisoners, guards, as well as the broader journalism profession, with exposés of the politics and economics of the prison system, earning several prestigious press awards along the way. He struggled with journalistic principles in a highly charged environment in which all sides were hyper-partisan and often violent. After 44 years and scores of appeals lost to political machinations, Rideau was finally freed in 2005. This is more than a prison memoir; it is a searing indictment of the American justice system “
A number of years ago (I can’t remember when) I was sitting at home listening to music by the Neville Brothers and was suddenly caught by the harshness of a track called “Angola Bound”. I have replayed the track on numerous occasions over the last decade but never once realised its significance until I began researching Angola prison for this review. Wilbert Rideau, prisoner number nine on death row in 1962 had been in Angola two years when Charles Neville, a small time thief and doper, was sent to Angola for three years. The song (co-written by Charles and Aaron) now makes sense to me and an interesting trivia fact – Rideau and Neville shared the 18,000 acre site at the same time although I have no idea if the two met.
When I began reading “In the place of justice” I was immediately struck by Wilbert’s delivery. The narrative is slick and has an intelligence that belies his education. A self-taught man for the most part the book is testament to one man’s refusal to give up despite the obstacles thrown in his way by the system –predominately white. In fact the book, although an honest and moving memoir reads like any good fiction novel. He doesn’t embellish the facts, they are there in black and white – he doesn’t need to glorify his predicament.
Clearly an intelligent man Rideau has faced a monumental uphill struggle to secure his freedom. He never once denies his guilt but vehemently protests the way the white community reported the killing. They claimed, following a bank robbery in 1961 that he lined up the three hostages with the sole intent to kill – nothing could be further from the truth as this book lends his version of events.
The kangaroo court, as described by the Louisiana Supreme Court, was sickening. An all-white, all male jury wasted very little time in finding him guilty of murder and Rideau found himself at the mercy of Angola – he truly was Angola Bound. We learn of his courage against adversity, his friendships formed and his dedication to remain true to his beliefs and make Angola – dubbed at the time as one of the most violent prisons in America – a safer place to serve out time.
At a time when sexual slavery was rife, murder was an everyday occurrence and drugs an inevitability, Rideau did what he knew best – write. He used his words to force a change in the prison and forge friendships he never thought possible, friendships that weren’t restricted to fellow prisoners but Wardens and officers alike – C Paul Phelps was one such friend.
Phelps – director of the Louisiana Department of Corrections went on to play an important part of his prison life, eventually having such a profound effect on Rideau he became a mentor. The bond of trust was formed one day while discussing the Angolite newspaper:
“I asked if he would trust me to make responsible decisions, to give me the benefit of the doubt. I knew there would be people who trashed me to him because they didn’t like something I wrote”. “I’ve already got enemies”, I said, “plus I’m black in a place run by rednecks”
“I know”, Phelps said, rising from the chair to stand at my desk. He looked down at me. “You said I’ll have to trust you. Tell me – can I trust you?”
Wilbert Rideau had every right to become a selfish and embittered man – locked away but not forgotten he faced an unknown and often faceless enemy. For years he was refused clemency and the false parole hearings that appeared to be fair gave him false hope. A lesser man would have crumbled under the pressure but thanks to the undying support of Dr Linda Labranche – who later became his wife – he continued to remain positive. Working tirelessly, through his journalism, he rehabilitated and eventually left Angola a better man than he did when he walked through the gates 44 years earlier.
“In the place of justice” is a remarkably frank account of one man’s struggle to survive. In an era where racism was insurmountable and sexual depravity the norm, Rideau’s accounts are mesmeric and breathtakingly honest. Wonderfully emotive this is one book I wholeheartedly recommend.
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