In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 27 2010
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“Perhaps no book written by an inmate has ever conveyed so much factual and emotional information about day-to-day prison life.”
-Best Books of 2010, San Francisco Chronicle
“If years in solitary confinement and on death row shaped and refined the young killer, Wilbert Rideau, it can surely be said that Rideau did as much for the prison that held him longest, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. This is a breathtaking and, ultimately, triumphant story of rehabilitation through endurance and courageous journalism. It is also a searing indictment of a broken, corrupt penal system that does far more damage than good to our society as a whole. This is an extraordinary book.”
“To hold in your hand a book like this is a small miracle. That is not to say that Wilbert Rideau is a saint. But it is to assert that what he has accomplished is the kind of thing to make all of us take notice: Rideau, a ninth-grade dropout, is one of the standout journalists of his generation, and probably the best prison journalist ever, anywhere. Few who start so awfully make so much out of their lives. This book is a passage through that life, starting with his crime, but also it is a passage through the American prison system of the past half-century. Both are presented here in a way that is sober, startling, and—in the case of the Louisiana's justice system—enraging. Rideau's endurance and strength of spirit are an amazement, models for all humankind. I found his story to be utterly gripping and it will not be giving anything away to say that I have not read such a happy ending in a long, long time."
“Engrossing, searing, and often heart-rending, this stunning narrative is ultimately about transcendence: how Wilbert Rideau overcame childhood misery, perversions of justice, and the darkness of imprisonment to become the rare man who could write such a book. The rewards of The Place of Justice involve much more than losing oneself in this wonderfully rendered life—it’s the way you feel once the last page is turned. Unforgettable.”
-Richard North Patterson
“Wilbert Rideau kept his cool for 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, put up with racial bias and severe injustices, won national awards editing the prison newsmagazine, and has written a book that moves without letup to an ending that’s alive with suspense.”
“A series of stunning journalistic revelations . . . Quite simply, no prison memoir in recent memory contains prose as deft or as riveting.”
-David Friend, Vanity Fair
“Candid . . . Poignant . . . Rideau is the rarest of American commodities—a man who exited a penitentiary in better shape than when he arrived.”
-David Oshinsky, The New York Times Book Review
“A richly detailed [and] all too rare look at life behind bars . . . Rideau’s account portrays a world that surprisingly mirrors our own, involving complicated power relations, functional and dysfunctional bureaucracies, and deep human ties of love and fealty . . . Books like Rideau’s provide a sympathetic glimpse into the world that most Americans have found it convenient to ignore.”
-David Cole, The New York Review of Books
“Incisive . . . Rideau commits a fair amount of real journalism in this memoir. That is, he names names—wardens, fellow prisoners, guards—and tells stories as straightforwardly as he can. His account of life in Angola is an important one . . . The ending of In the Place of Justice is as low-key, but as emotional, as any words I’ve read in a long time.”
-Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Gripping . . . [Wilbert Rideau] was left to rot but instead built an extraordinary career.”
-Robert Perkinson, The Nation
“Riveting . . . Amazing . . . The picture of prison life painted by Rideau isn’t the one portrayed in many movies. There is violence and brutality, especially for the weak . . . But Rideau mostly shows that prison is a place where people are still living their lives . . . Amazingly, after the fear, the periods of isolation, and the hate he experienced, Rideau was able to lead a productive life and help others. Now he has provided a wonderful chance to share his remarkable life.”
-Mary Foster, Associated Press
“Intimate . . . Even if the memoir were devoid of such thematic relevance, Rideau’s sheer writing talent would propel In the Place of Justice to the status of a masterpiece in the realm of autobiographies. As it stands, the book already possesses the unique quality of being able to transform the inside perspective of a potentially demonized societal outsider into the objective opinion of an individual who simply refuses to ignore the value within.”
-Lance Hicks, The Anniston Star (Alabama)
“Searing, suspenseful, stomach-churning and soul-stirring, In the Place of Justice is a sobering indictment of the criminal justice and penal systems in Louisiana over the past half century—and testimony to the triumph of the human spirit.”
-Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
“Fascinating and inspiring . . . This book is a gift to all of us in so many ways. It will serve as a valuable primary source for scholars of the prison and court systems of this country. It will hopefully inform every voter and every politician or political politician who reads it. But first and foremost, it provides an enormously satisfying emotional and intellectual experience as Rideau weaves meaning into what would seem the most threadbare of situations.”
-Patricia Black, BookPage
“Uplifting . . . [Especially] his self-reclamation through tough, committed journalism in an unpropitious setting . . . Rideau’s story is a compelling reminder that rehabilitation should be the focus of a penal system.”
“Unlike most prison memoirs, Rideau does not dwell on the sensational nature of his crime and instead tells his tale factually in the mellow and precise tone of an intellectual. His superhuman patience and insistence on willing his freedom through legal means are inspirational. Readers of all kinds will appreciate his large heart and thoughtful insights into the machinations of the criminal-justice system in America.”
About the Author
Wilbert Rideau was editor of The Angolite, a prison newsmagazine that during his tenure was nominated seven times for a National Magazine Award. While in prison, he was a correspondent for NPR’s Fresh Air; coproduced and narrated a radio documentary, “Tossing Away the Keys,” for NPR’s All Things Considered; collaborated on “In for Life” for ABC-TV’s Day One; and codirected the Academy Award–nominated film The Farm: Angola, USA. He is the recipient of a George Polk Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, among others. He was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2007 and works as a consultant with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project. He lives in Louisiana.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Thus, it was with great delight that I saw this autobiography was for sale. Ii went to a book signing and purchased it and had it signed by the author and spoke with him slightly. He seemed a decent,intelligent, quiet-spoken older man.
Now to the book itself. It is a page turner. At each sitting to read it, I have read at least 100 pages at a time. He is a very good writer and re-creates the world of the Parish jails and of Angola quite vividly. It is all so awful with immense unfairness and in truth evil that it is hard to believe it is not fiction. But it is a true. The parts that describe large and small acts of kindness and fairness from fellow prisoners and prison employees and others are very moving.I really highly recommend this book if you like true stories or any stories. It is basically a saga of determination,transformation, personal integrity, and redemption. It tells of brutal events and of tenacity and of a persons's struggle to develop his own humanity and to keep hope in the face of harsh and quite often unfair circumstances.It is also about coming to terms with having murdered a fellow human being.
The man killed a person in cold blood and wounded two others. That was in 1961. He served 44 years in prison. He changed. He admits the murder was awful and wrong and really hurt others and that he feels great pain about having done it. He has become a good human being. He is a great and talented writer and reporter. Again I will say I am glad he got out and I love his book. Everyone is entitled to feel about him as they do. I am glad i gave his book a chance and read it. Taken on it's own merits, this book measures up as enthralling,real drama. It is a great read.
The power and breadth of this story is not so much (though not minimizing the importance) the original maneuvers that changed the charges... but what the author lived through and shares from that point on. The next forty-four-years are spent in numerous prisons... with times in solitary confinement that broke records in their longevity... but the core... and very soul... of Wilbert's life and story resides in the "LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARY, MORE POPULARLY KNOWN AS *ANGOLA*"... *THROUGHOUT THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY IT WAS KNOWN AS THE MOST INTIMIDATING PRISON IN AMERICA.* Wilbert arrived at Angola on April 11, 1962. As federal and state laws changed Rideau went on and off death row. His sentence changed from death to life. The reader is put right in the middle of Angola at its worst as an example "from 1972 to 1975, 67 prisoners were stabbed to death in Angola, and more than 350 others were seriously injured from knife wounds. The violence affected one of every ten prisoners, not counting those injured in fistfights or beatings with blunt objects." Sexual perversion and rapes were far worse in actuality than portrayed in movies. "SLAVERY WAS COMMONPLACE AT ANGOLA, WITH PERHAPS A QUARTER OF THE POPULATION IN BONDAGE." Every sexual act imaginable was performed with gang rapes an everyday occurrence. How bad was it at Angola? "EVEN IN MAXIMUM-SECURITY CELLBLOCKS, MEN TIED THEIR DOORS SHUT FOR AN EXTRA MEASURE OF SAFETY. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST WAS THE ONLY LAW, AND FEAR WAS THE SUPREME RULER OF ALL."
The penalty for being caught with a weapon was high... but being killed unarmed was worse. "THE ANGOLA INMATES' CREDO: I'D RATHER BE CAUGHT BY SECURITY WITH A WEAPON THAN BY MY ENEMY WITHOUT ONE." In the midst of this jungle the author found writing. And with his writing his incarcerated life was akin to a beautiful flower that somehow is able to grow and bloom through a miniscule crack in an obliterated cement street in an urban city. Thanks to some shining lights who became wardens at Angola such as C. Paul Phelps... who Wilbert dedicated this book to... and Ross Maggio, Jr. ... among others... "The Angolite" the prison newspaper was allowed to be written and printed uncensored. This was unheard of in this environment. Wilbert's writings gave hope to prisoners that had previously been hopeless... and made the world aware of Angola... and prisoner's rights being denied and abused. Wilbert became famous... won awards... and was actually allowed to travel outside the prison to give speeches. Through it all... despite all the good that Wilbert achieved he could not get his sentence commuted. Whether it was Governors who lied to their constituents or parole board members being coerced or mandatory sentence laws being changed... Wilbert was forced to endure. Despite his inability to free himself... he continued to aid other inmates in their release. During this tortuous... endless... sentence... it is extremely interesting how powerful Wilbert became in dealing with inmates of varying factions... wardens... and the nations press. Along with the aforementioned wardens... Wilbert was also responsible "for there only being two killings in 1976 and one in 1977, and fewer than ten stabbings serious enough to require hospitalization."
You will be taken on a painful prison journey that keeps detouring from hope... and learn along with Wilbert as "THE OTHER OCCUPANTS OF DEATH ROW TOLD ME NEVER TO LET AN ENEMY CATCH ME SITTING ON A COMMODE WITH MY DRAWERS PULLED DOWN AROUND MY ANKLES BECAUSE THEN I COULD NEITHER RUN NOR FIGHT"... you'll share with Wilbert what demons you must battle when you spend *TWELVE-YEARS-IN-SOLITARY-CONFINEMENT*... when he says: "IT'S QUIET. PROFOUNDLY SO. RAIN WHISPERS AGAINST THE OPEN WINDOW A FEW FEET AWAY. THE ONLY OTHER THING YOU CAN HEAR IS YOUR OWN HEART, THUMPING. I'VE KNOWN MEN WHO COULD NOT STAND THIS SILENCE, BUT I'VE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO IT. I SCRATCH A FINGERNAIL ON ONE OF THE BARS, TO REASSURE MYSELF I HAVEN'T GONE DEAF. I'VE STOOD HERE MANY NIGHTS STARING OUT MY SECOND-FLOOR WINDOW AT THE SAME SCENE BELOW, WEEK AFTER WEEK, MONTH AFTER MONTH, YEAR AFTER YEAR... AFTER YEAR. EXCEPT FOR THE RAIN, IT NEVER CHANGES."
A senseless crime and an admitted murder... and forty-four-years to freedom.
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.
Clearly, this is a peaceful man, a far cry from the 19-year-old violent youth he once was.
Be warned: this book, while very well-written, is not a book read in one sitting. You have to read slowly, because it's a heavy subject and there are lots of events, characters and legal concepts. But the book is rich in insights, of which I cite a few:
-- "There is a difference between a criminal and a criminal personality."
-- "I was a prisoner no longer held by force but by the person I had become."
-- "The most basic law of the prison system is that as long as there is a cell, someone will be found to put in it."
-- "Parole eligibility is the most effective inducement for encouraging good behavior in prisoners."
-- "If you didn't want people seeing what you were doing, then maybe you shouldn't be doing it."
-- "What would white folks think if white defendants were tried by all-black juries and prosecutors?"
-- "A prosecutor's job is to get to the truth, not to convict."
Like some reviewers, I was somewhat troubled by his specious handling of the definition between "murder" and "manslaughter." Rideau claims that his killing qualified as manslaughter because it was not intended and only occurred in a moment of excitement and passion. Fair enough, but what if that moment of "excitement and passion" was caused totally by Rideau (who brandished a gun and scared the daylights out of his prisoners, compelling them to flee and resist)? I leave that issue to the judges, more capable of splitting legal hairs than I am.
The bottom line is that Rideau made the most of his imprisonment and rehabilitated himself fully. His triumph over adversity, his never giving up, his positive outlook on life should be an inspiration to us all. Rideau points out that Louisiana spends $5200 a year to educate a kid, and $52,000 to incarcerate him. I don't mean to be facetious, but this book should be mandatory reading for every kid in high school (among others). That would be one way to save money by deterring future crime and clipping the wings of the "prison-industrial complex."
A provocative book for the thoughtful reader. Highly recommended.
- Deen Thompson
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