In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance
I have not yet read this book, but I’m going to.
This book was written by Wilbert Rideau, convicted in 1961 of murder in Louisiana.
The fact that he committed the murder is not disputed. The circumstances surrounding his first trial (and subsequent ones) resulted in his death sentence being commuted to life; and what a life he made for himself.
This man was in the news locally for decades, always fascinating, so I watched at least some of his story play out in real time. He served his sentence at Louisiana State Prison at Angola, which at the time he was first incarcerated was known as the most intimidating prison in the country.
He survived the really ugly days of Angola, through prison reforms, and became the editor of “The Angolite”, the nation’s only uncensored prison publication, for which he received national attention. He used that platform, along with production of film documentaries, to bring to light the jungle atmosphere in prisons and sexual violence among prisoners.
He was released from prison in 2005, after a final re-trial.
I do not wish to glorify this man; he committed murder and a heinous one. His victim has living relatives who would have preferred to see him remain incarcerated, and I cannot blame them for their viewpoint.
However, this record of his life shows that people can overcome the worst possible, and become a contributing, productive part of society even while in prison, if given the opportunity.
An hour’s drive northwest from Baton Rouge sits the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States. On the site of a former slave plantation, it currently houses close to 5,000 inmates and covers more ground, at 18,000 acres, than the island of Manhattan. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, its stunning physical isolation and distinctive antebellum feel have provided the backdrop for numerous feature films and documentaries, including “Dead Man Walking,” “Monster’s Ball” and “The Farm.” For Southerners, especially African-Americans, Angola is both a prison and a state of mind, a relic from before the civil rights era, when white supremacy was the custom and racial segregation was the law.
Few people know this better than Wilbert Rideau. Convicted of the murder of a white bank teller in 1961, Rideau, who is black, spent 44 years in prison, most of them at Angola, before being released. His painfully candid memoir, “In the Place of Justice,” is indeed, as its subtitle promises, “a story of punishment and deliverance,” told by a high school dropout who escaped Angola’s electric chair to become an award-winning prison journalist. As such, Rideau is the rarest of American commodities — a man who exited a penitentiary in better shape than when he arrived.