Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Wilbert Rideau's "In the Place of Justice": Book Review

This memoir attests to the possibilities of reform. It's aptly titled in its double meaning and the ambiguity his incarceration has been based upon. 115 lbs., five-foot-seven, scared and with a new knife and pistol after being beaten up and vowing to get revenge and then to get out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Rideau at nineteen impulsively robs his local bank. The adverb is crucial.

Acting out of "panic and impulse" meets the state definition of manslaughter, not murder. Rideau kidnaps three white employees and takes them to a rural highway. One woman bolts out of the car and runs. Without thinking, Rideau fires and shoots into the darkness. He then stabs one woman in the throat in the chaos.

Narrowly avoiding a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South of 1961, his arrest triggers what one Supreme Court Justice will call a "kangaroo trial." Evidence is planted or tainted, witnesses lie, and an autopsy is bungled. Racial animosity played up by his prosecutors leads an all-white, all-male jury to find him guilty of murder in fifteen minutes.

Sentenced to death at Angola, one of the nation's most violent prisons, he tells of life on the inside. He served most of his term of forty-four years there. Others convicted of the same crime were eligible for parole after ten years, six months. Basing his demands for redress as opposed to the unconstitutional proceedings under which he was sentenced, Rideau twice was retried, and twice was denied freedom.

He gained fame by his editorship of the prison newspaper, "The Angolite." Under a sympathetic head of corrections, C. Paul Phelps, Rideau and his staff gained the relative freedom to investigate injustices in the system. He earned national awards and media attention for his journalism, and even traveled to speak about his situation throughout the state.

Still, with the 1990s crackdown on rehabilitation as opposed to warehousing, his criticisms were censored. He tells of the profiteering by the prison industry so dependent upon government contracts, unions, and business interests. This aspect, in fact, merited wider attention than this narrative provides. Rideau understandably concentrates upon his own redemption, his own awareness of the crime he committed and the remorse he learns, and of his own legal struggles over decades to earn a fair trial and his release.

While minutiae about his difficulties in reporting from inside prison, and the retrials and reconsiderations of his case may slow readers down in the latter portions of this hefty book, it is only fair that Rideau uses this forum to express his own side of a still controversial story. Four-and-a-half decades later, his fourth trial led to considerable outrage, and many in Louisiana still opposed his release. But the charge of manslaughter was upheld, and in 2005 he left prison.

He tells of his surprise at re-entering society in a desegregated South, and of his struggles to find his footing. Opponents may not be pleased that he declared bankruptcy to avoid $117,000 in court fees charged to him, but Rideau insists that based on his unconstitutional sentencing, he deserves a fresh start free of debt. He argues that he has paid his debts and more.

Struggling from his eighth-grade education and impoverished, fearful, abusive upbringing into his role as a spokesman for prisoners and an advocate for reform, Rideau tells his "story of punishment and deliverance" with an eye for detail and a determined levelheadedness. His self-control has been hard won.

He credits those, nearly all from the white community rather than his own, who advocated for his release and supported his pleas. He learns remorse, educates himself, and admits his actions and their mortal consequences. This intelligent, straightforward version of his side of events-- from inside a predicament few readers will otherwise experience-- expresses his message of redemption and renewal well.

This review was featured in slightly edited form on 6-7-10 at Pop Matters. A response to detractors of the book (who appeared not to have read it) had been posted to Amazon US before I wrote this review, 5-11-10.

On reflection, I append my response below, as its tonal differences from a more detached review merit their own forum.

I came to this book hesitant, too. Previous reviews are split, but I sense its detractors so far haven't read it.

In the start, I thought that Rideau lacked compassion, but he sets up his narrative so you follow his own gradual understanding of the terrible tragedy as he does, bit by bit while in prison. Rideau admits remorse and expresses only that he committed the crime under "panic and impulse" and that legally this qualified him, as his fourth trial's jury agreed, to manslaughter and not murder for no premeditation was meant. This does not ease the loss of Julia Ferguson, but be fair to the book under review, for if you read it all the way through, you get a fuller depiction of the crime, the trials, and the man who took her life.

While I would have liked more insight into the prison industry that Angola profits from, and while the minutiae about the trial does weigh the book down for those less versed in legal or police procedure-- it's of course understandable that the author wants to set his story straight against over four decades of vehement opponents to his release-- the book does serve not to entertain but to educate. You will not find wry stories of characters or the typical anecdotes of ingenuity or shock that many prison memoirs tend towards. The tone is sober, the pace steady, and the scope wide.

Readers may come away, if they truly study this narrative and not post reviews based on preconceptions, with a better comprehension of how our system's determined on keeping prisoners ignorant, illiterate, and violent. This, to me, is the topic as much as Rideau's own struggle. He learns to "man up" for his crimes-- as a careful reading of the book shows--- his beef is with the unjust sentence he earned when those serving for similar crimes got off with a quarter of the time. The warehousing and profiteering off of a million and a half men and women detained in our nation is the scandal that few care about. What politician wins on this issue? Even the death penalty opponents as he notes tend towards this point only, while the conditions of locking often stupid people up and letting them grow only more stupid rather than rehabilitating them becomes the greater scandal.

Yes, he learned in prison how to reflect, to read, to think. He credits his white jailers in the Jim Crow South for giving him books. He notes how few supporters came from his own community. And, coming out of 1961 segregated Louisiana, he does not play the race card. But he sets his "kangaroo trial" in context.

He served 44 years when others did 10 years, six months before parole for the same crime. He notes the unconstitutional sentence and tainted evidence and perjured testimony and racial hatred that added up to unfair sentencing. He narrowly avoided a lynch mob after his arrest. He does not make excuses for his crime, but he shows how he did not get a fair trial, let alone two more, for what he did and the damage and death he caused. This is difficult I know for those favoring a get-tough approach to cheer for, but Rideau does show a case study in reforming himself that for a fair-minded reader it seems churlish to condemn.

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