In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance

Image of In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance
Release Date: 
April 26, 2010
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Wilbert Rideau, a black man unjustly sentenced to death when he was nineteen for having killed a white woman in a botched bank robbery in 1961, spent 44 years in Louisiana prisons, the most notorious being the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a vast and fearsome institution better known as “Angola.”  In 2005, after years of failed appeals and requests for pardons, Rideau finally was charged with manslaughter and, because he had already served twice the maximum sentence for that charge, was released from prison.

Between his arrest and release, Rideau became a nationally renowned journalist who exposed corruption and brutality in the Louisiana penal system. His accomplishments were remarkable for any journalist, let alone one who was not a free agent.  In 1976, Rideau was made editor of The Angolite, a prison news magazine. Under his leadership, The Angolite was nominated seven times for national magazine awards. In 1979, it won the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, a first for a prison publication, and then the next year, the prestigious George Polk Award. Rideau’s editorship of The Angolite caught the attention of broadcast media; he became a correspondent for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program and co-produced and narrated the NPR documentary “Tossing Away the Keys.” A documentary he produced for ABC-TV won the Louisiana Bar Association’s award for Overall Excellence in Journalism while another film that he directed, The Farm: Angola U.S.A., was nominated for an Academy Award.

Talk about being given lemons and making lemonade—Rideau did that for most of his adult life, finding purpose and meaning in an environment that swallowed up and destroyed so many others who lacked his intelligence, resourcefulness, and patience. In the Place of Justice is his engrossing account of how he redeemed himself and became a leading advocate for prison reform.

During his more than four decades behind bars, Rideau witnessed many cruelties and injustices: barbaric executions by electric chair, lethal violence by guards and inmates, rape and sexual slavery, and omnipresent racism. These horrors, of course, are the staples of prison memoirs, from Papillion to Soul on Ice and countless others. Rideau reports the awful stuff he saw and experienced as a solid, professional journalist would, without sensationalism, and with a wealth of factual detail. But what’s surprising is how much courage and decency he witnessed, on the parts of both the kept and their keepers.

Wilbert Rideau was born in 1942 in Lawtell, Louisiana. His mother, Gladys Victorian, was traumatized as a child by Ku Klux Klan terrorism, as the racist organization was undergoing a resurgence in 1920s. His father Thomas Rideau, a laborer, was unfaithful to Gladys and frequently beat her and their children. His parents failed to equip Wilbert or his brother for life: “It never occurred to my parents to teach us what was expected of us in relation to others, and what we could realistically expect in return.”

Wilbert was a very bright child who did exceptionally well in school. But given his upbringing, he felt shy and cowardly, unparented and unprotected. “I grew like an untended weed, without guidance, confronting the world on my own and learning by trial and error.”

The world he confronted was demarcated by race and racism: the segregated South, where blacks who didn’t “know their place” were quickly reminded, usually through violence, of their subordinate status in the dominant racial order.

When Wilbert’s father deserted the family, Wilbert, his pregnant mother, and his younger brother ended up on welfare. Wilbert committed several petty burglaries before being caught and sent to a reformatory for black youths. Then, at age 19, he committed the crime that would shape the rest of his life. During his ill-considered holdup of a Lake Charles bank, he panicked as circumstances spiraled out of control and killed a woman employee. He desperately wanted to escape Lake Charles, and he believed the bank loot would enable him to start a new life far from the town he loathed. He hadn’t bothered to plan his crime because he was certain it’d be easy: “I’d seen it done countless times in the movies.”

Rideau never minimizes the enormity of what he did, nor does he try to rationalize it by invoking the racial climate of the time. But what happened to him in the aftermath of his crime can only be called racially-motivated injustice. The railroading of Wilbert Rideau began when the local sheriff improperly interviewed him the morning after the crime, with TV cameras present, and without providing Rideau legal counsel. Rideau’s first trial was a travesty; he was represented, if one can use that term, by two civil attorneys who had never tried a capital case. The judge refused the attorneys’ request for a change of venue even though Lake Charles media had “saturated the community with coverage of the sensational interracial crime.” Rideau’s attorneys had less than six weeks to prepare a defense, and they had to fund the defense out of their own pockets since the court provided no money for investigators, forensic tests, or expert witnesses. The lawyers failed to challenge the prosecution’s case, not even calling a single witness. The all-white male jury—which included a cousin of the woman Rideau had killed—predictably found him guilty.

In 1962, Rideau was sent to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he was to be housed on death row before his execution in the electric chair. Angola, known as “the Alcatraz of the South,” was the most intimidating—and most violent—prison in America. “When deputies shackled me and put me in a car for the trip there on April 11, 1962, I feared the prison far more than my death sentence,” Rideau recalls.

But his transformation from an aimless, angry, and self-destructive youth began on Death Row, when he started to read. “The more I learned, the more I sought; the more I reflected, the more I grew and matured . . . it was a long growth process in which I began to shed the ignorance, anger, and insecurities that had governed my previous life. I learned more from my reading on death row than I had during all my years of formal schooling, which had left me literate but uneducated.” Reading, he says, “ultimately allowed me to feel empathy, to emerge from my cocoon of self-centeredness and appreciate the enormity of what I had done, the depth of the damage I had caused others.” 

His attorneys, though they hadn’t presented a competent defense, did appeal his conviction and death sentence. The U. S. Supreme Court accepted the appeal, with Justice Potter Stewart decrying the “kangaroo court proceedings” in Louisiana. Rideau’s second trial “was virtually a repeat of the first, but the jury was quicker, taking only fifteen minutes” to find him guilty. A third trial, lasting an entire three days, was basically a repeat of the first two, and resulted in another guilty verdict and death sentence.

But in 1972, the Supreme Court issued its Furman v. Georgia ruling that abolished the death penalty and voided all death sentences in the nation. The next year the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed Rideau’s murder conviction, but because of Furman, sentenced him to life imprisonment.

If reading helped him to grow and mature, it was an Angola warden who provided the support for him to develop as both a journalist and a man. C. Paul Phelps, to whom Rideau has dedicated In the Place of Justice, came to Angola in 1975 as a “career corrections bureaucrat with no actual prison experience.” Phelps, however, was a sociologist and social worker with an open mind and a non-authoritarian style. The new warden “boldly roamed Angola’s violent world,” stopping to chat with employees and inmates alike, even sitting down in the dining hall to eat with prisoners—an unheard of act that discomfited prisoners and guards alike.

When Phelps wondered how The Angolite might foster unfettered communication between staff and prisoners, Rideau told him that the magazine had to be uncensored because “a censored publication has no credibility.” Phelps agreed. Phelps also was receptive when Rideau schooled him in prison power relations: “A peaceful maximum security prison owes its success to the consent of its prisoners, a consent that comes from mutual understanding and reasonable, commonsense accommodations. . . . And the one thing prisoners hate is what seems to them to be nonsensical, arbitrary rules and actions.” So Phelps invited Rideau to “review and assess” his proposed rules and actions before he implemented them.

Phelps learned from Rideau about prison society. But Rideau learned from him about “the world of management” when Phelps brought him to official prison business meetings normally only for staff. More than that, Phelps gave Rideau “an education in morality, personal responsibility, goal setting, and civic duty.” When Phelps suddenly died at 60 of a heart attack, Rideau was devastated.

Under Phelps’ immediate successor Ross Maggio, The Angolite “became the unofficial middleman for solving problems.” Maggio, though a macho, hard-charging type, was receptive to Rideau’s suggestions for improving conditions and the functioning of prison: “He gave almost everything I asked for on behalf of the prisoners once I showed him that it posed no threat to his control or the security of the facility.”

Rideau, having found a purpose in life, made The Angolite his cause. He believed that “becoming the nation’s first black prison editor had given me a chance to do something good, to redeem myself, and to make my people proud of me.” During the years of its all-white editorship, the magazine had mainly printed stories about Angola’s various inmate clubs and their activities. Rideau changed its editorial direction to focus on real journalism: “studying and reporting on the Angola prison community and the corrections system in the same manner as any local newspaper covered its city, with real news and features about the world we lived in and the things that affected us. I wanted the magazine to deal with the realities of prison life.”

But first he had to win the trust of black prisoners who wanted The Angolite to be a black publication, since they constituted 85 percent of the inmate population. He increased the magazine’s coverage of African American prisoners, since previous editors had slighted them, but he determined that “race would not influence anything in the magazine.” Because of this policy, some blacks shunned him, although most didn’t.

It’s surprising how much latitude Rideau enjoyed as editor, probably more than many editors of non-prison publications. While Angola could be nightmarish, there were from time to time enlightened people in charge of it, when the political environment in Louisiana permitted, and they understood the importance of The Angolite. But Rideau was not only free to write and edit; he also was permitted to travel beyond the walls of Angola, accompanied by an official, to give talks to civic and youth groups about prison life.

Rideau’s fourth trial brought vindication and his release from prison. But it was an arduous path to victory, and once again the State of Louisiana did everything it could to block his freedom. The trial was held in predominantly white and conservative Monroe County, with a mainly white jury, and the judge openly favored the prosecution and hindered Rideau’s attorneys. Yet that same jury voted to overturn his murder conviction and instead find him guilty of manslaughter, as he should have been 40-odd years earlier. The judge gave him the maximum sentence of 21 years, and because he’d already served more than double that, he was immediately freed. Rideau gained his freedom on January 15, 2005—Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Rideau’s legal team—which briefly included Johnnie Cochran, not long before the celebrated defense attorney died from brain cancer—methodically demolished the prosecution’s murder case. They refuted the prosecution’s claim that Rideau’s killing of his victim, Julia Ferguson, not only was premeditated but that he had also planned to kill all of the bank employees he took hostage. They discredited the sheriff’s investigation of the crime scene, exposed the false testimony of witnesses, and convincingly demonstrated that racism affected the way the authorities handled the case from the start, including the Lake Charles’ police keeping Rideau in isolation with no access to an attorney and coercing statements from him.

Free at last, Rideau initially found it difficult to adjust to freedom. Inside Angola, he was able to exert genuine influence and power. Outside, he felt powerless and dependent on others. But fortunately for him, he had Linda La Branche, a Shakespeare scholar who became his most tenacious advocate and, as a researcher, an essential member of his legal team. Upon his release, Rideau moved in with her and not long afterward they married. Rideau became a Soros Fellow and worked as a consultant to the Federal Death Penalty Resources Counsel.

In the Place of Justice, though candid and insightful, can be faulted for its author’s failure to situate his experiences within a broader context. Critics of the American incarceration system speak of a “prison-industrial complex” whose fundamental purpose is not to rehabilitate or even punish criminals but to make profits from them. The journalist Eric Schlosser, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, described it as “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.”

The prison-industrial complex, Schlosser observed, “is composed of politicians . . . who have used the fear of crime to gain votes; impoverished rural areas where prisons have become a cornerstone of economic development; private companies that regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market; and government officials whose fiefdoms have expanded along with the inmate population.”

While economic and political interests benefit from this arrangement, violence and sexual abuse, inappropriate segregation of inmates, poor health care—and a lack of public scrutiny—plague the nation’s prisons, according to a 2006 report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons.

Rideau describes the growth in the 1980s of a “prisoner for profit” system in Louisiana that amply rewarded penal officials, politicians, and businesses while depriving prisoners—like him, mainly people of color—of health and legal services and opportunities for rehabilitation. But he lets pass the opportunity to connect Louisiana’s prison-industrial complex to the national system.

Wilbert Rideau is now 68, living in Baton Rouge with Linda and their cats. (Never having cared much for animals before, he is surprised by his depth of feeling for his and Linda’s feline housemates.) “Yes, this is paradise,” he concludes. The reader is likely to finish In the Place of Justice thinking, few paradises have been more hard won.