Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison
Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison
In 1961, Wilbert Rideau shot a bank teller named Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. He was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury of murder and sentenced to die.
Wilbert Rideau was Fresh Air's prison correspondent from 1992-1995. Excerpts from his reports from inside Angola appear here:
Note: Adult language.
'On Sexual Violence At Angola'
'On The Routine Of Prison Life'
'On Reading In Prison'
In a 1994 interview on Fresh Air, Warden John Whitley explained why he approved of Rideau's reports on NPR.
'I Actually Encouraged Him To Do It...'
Rideau lived on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary -- better known as Angola -- from the time he was 19 to the time he was 31. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty as it was then practiced, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
At the time, Angola was very much a segregated prison. When Rideau attempted to join the staff of the prison magazine,The Angolite, he was rejected. Rideau then started an all-black magazine in the prison called The Lifer, publishing investigative reports on prison life. In 1975, after mandatory desegregation rules were put into place, Rideau was placed in charge of The Angolite.
For 25 years, Rideau reported on events that were taking place within Angola's walls -- covering topics such as the mishandling of AIDS funds for prisoners, the brutality of electrocutions and the pervasive sexual violence inside the prison. During Rideau's years as editor,The Angolite won the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award -- and Rideau became a correspondent for Fresh Air, reporting on what it was like to live in solitary confinement and how prisoners feared for their safety on a daily basis.
Rideau always acknowledged his victims and took full responsibility for his crime. Yet by the mid-'90s, most of the murder convicts sent to Louisiana's prisons around the same time as Rideau had been pardoned -- including some who had committed similar crimes -- while Rideau remained incarcerated. A 20/20 investigation revealed that Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards had said that he would never release Rideau, despite believing that Rideau had been fully rehabilitated.
In 2000, Rideau's original murder conviction was overturned because of racial discrimination in a previous trial's grand jury process. He was tried again, found guilty of manslaughter and re-sentenced to 21 years. Because Rideau had already served 44 years, he was freed.
In a new memoir, In the Place of Justice, Rideau describes his years in incarceration in great detail, including how he became rehabilitated -- and how he practiced serious journalism within the prison walls. He tells Terry Gross that when he started writing for The Angolite in 1975, he had no way of knowing how powerful his magazine would become outside the prison's walls.
"I didn't know that when I started out. What I really wanted to do was tell," he says. "I just couldn't believe that society would accept the barbarity, the horrible things that were going on. And I knew I could write. And I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell society, to tell the public what's going on, to let them know and to give them a better understanding about criminals, about crime, about prisons. ... I knew I couldn't make things right, but I can give something back. I can contribute something to society and that's the way it was born."
Rideau wrote about what was then called "the bloodiest prison in the nation" for more than 25 years, including an article on sexual violence that received the George Polk Award.
"There was violence literally every day," he says. "You had people getting killed, gang wars. You had drug traffickers rampant. You had sexual violence and enslavement of prisoners. Guys would rape you and that was a process that redefined you, not as a male but as a female and also as property. Whoever raped you owned you, and you had to serve him as long as you were in prison, unless he gave you away or you were sold."
Though Rideau was never attacked, he says he spent his years in prison on "high alert" while reporting on the conditions within Angola. Today, he works as a consultant and as a writer and lives with his girlfriend, who he met while he was in prison.
And he says prison -- where he discovered reading and writing -- saved him.
"I lived like a reporter and had a mission in life," he says. "And despite everything else, it gave my life meaning, despite the prison context."
In the Place of Justice
A Story of Punishment and Deliverance
Hardcover, 366 pages |purchase
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Excerpt: 'In the Place of Justice'
In the Place of Justice
By Wilbert Rideau
Hardcover, 384 pages
List price: $26.95
It's late, and raining. The buildings before me have been abandoned. Life has drained from the traffic arteries below. The wet pavement of empty Lake Charles streets and parking lots doubles the glare of street lamps and neon signs, intensifying the darkness.
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.
I came from that world, was once a part of it. But it's strange to me now, like a foreign country I've only read about. I feel no love, no hate. What lies outside that window represents all of my soul's yearnings: freedom, joy, home, love, friendship, satisfaction, peace, happiness. But I feel nothing as I look. To me it is inanimate, like a picture on a wall. I'm barred from that world and old memories no longer bridge the gap. I can't relate to that world, any more than I can imagine what it would feel like to walk down one of those streets, the rain in my face. It's been too long.
I turn my attention to squashing my cigarette butt in the ashtray, then look around my cell. This is my reality. Solitude. Four walls, graygreen, drab, and foreboding. Three of steel and one of bars, held together by 358 rivets. Seven feet wide, nine feet long. About the size of an average bathroom or -- and my mind leaps at this -- the size of four tombs, only taller. I, the living dead, have need of a few essentials that the physically dead no longer require -- commode, shower, face bowl, bunk. A sleazy old mattress, worn to thinness. On the floor in a corner, a cardboard box that contains all my worldly possessions -- a writing tablet, a pen, and two changes of underwear. The mattress, the box, and I are the only things not bolted down, except the cockroaches that come and go from the drain in the floor and scurry around in the shower. This is my life, every minute of the year. I'm buried alive. But I'm the only person for whom that fact has meaning, who feels it, so it's immaterial.
My eyes return to the open window across the catwalk outside the bars. A block away, twin lights appear as a car cautiously finds its way down the rain- slicked street. A gust of wind whips at me, ice on its lash. I look at my gray, jail- issued coveralls hanging on the wall hook. I should put them on to be warmer, but I don't. After what I've been through, why should I cringe before a simple thing like cold? Strength and the spirit of contest surge through me. This is a challenge, and knowing that the cold cannot defeat me gives me pride. I remain in my T- shirt and shorts, unyielding, feeling strong and powerful. That's what I've been reduced to.
It's hard to believe that I once experienced a life in that world outside my window. Would I even be able to recognize the neighborhood I grew up in? Are kids playing hooky still shooting craps on those old tombs? Is Old Man Martello still peddling cigarettes three for a nickel to underage smokers? I wonder, but there's no one to ask. Everyone but my mother has abandoned me.
I turn from the window and walk slowly toward the heavy steel door. I'm restless again. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. Walk back. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . stop. I reach for the pack of cigarettes. Light one. Puff deeply. Fan out the match, flip it out into the catwalk. I exhale the smoke, looking idly out the window, thinking of nothing, then turn lazily toward the center of my cell.
Suddenly, adrenaline is coursing through me. I freeze, like a feral cat who spots a stray dog. It's the walls! They're closer! They're moving in on me, closing up the tomb. Panic is suffocating me. This is what they want; they want to kill me. Somehow, I will my muscles to relax, and my mind follows. The tension dissipates. It's just my imagination. Steel walls don't move. Shit, no. I should know that better than anyone. Ridiculous. I just need something to do, that's all. But what? I look around the cell, wondering what to do. I can read, walk, shower again, or think. And I'm tired of reading, so . . .
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. One . . . two . . . three . . . It's not right to make a man live like this, alone. But I can take it. I can whip this motherfucker. I am stronger than anything they can do to me. The more they do, the stronger they make me. I actually smile. Haven't I endured and risen above an experience that would crush most men?
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. Yeah, I've seen men broken, destroyed by solitary. Some have come to fear every shadow. Others have committed suicide. Some men would do anything to escape this cell. Some feigned insanity so they could go to a mental institution. Even more cut themselves, over and over, until the Man, fearing a suicide on his watch, moved them out of solitary. Others stayed doped up, whenever they could get the dope. Engaging in such tricks, though, is beneath my dignity; it's unmanly. I am stronger than the punishment. The only way to beat it, to rise above it, is to regard the punishment as a challenge and see my ability to endure it while others cannot as a victory. Whenever another man falls under the pressure, it's a triumph for me. Callous, some would call me. A man falls, broken, insane, or dead, and I feel nothing except triumph. But this is no place for pity— not for the next man, nor for myself. It would break me. The hard truth about solitary is that each man must struggle and suffer alone.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. I wonder what time it is. It doesn't matter, except knowing the time allows me to mark the progress of the night. Breakfast shouldn't be too far off. Then lunch. Then supper. I look forward to mealtime. The food tastes awful, but I always try to eat it because I have to guard my health. Next to insanity, sickness is most to be feared in solitary, where medical help is hard to come by.
I stop at the bars, grind out my cigarette, look out the window. The rain is falling a little harder. There ought to be something I can do. Turning, I see my bunk. That's it. I drop into it, lie down. The mattress makes little difference; I'm lying on steel. I close my eyes and let my mind roam freely in search of distraction. I reject thoughts and images of past experiences as they move across the screen of my mind. Good memories are excellent distractions from this grim reality, but I possess very few of them and can't conjure one up tonight. Restless, I get back up, pace the floor for a while, then go to the steel rail that connects the two steel walls of the shower. I heft myself up, over and over, until I am in a sweat. Chin-ups have made my arms almost as strong as the steel bars that hold me. I move to the sink and push the button for some water.
As I drink, I see a black man peering at me from the polished- steel mirror over my sink. I put down my cup and carefully remove my handcrafted covering from the light fixture. The room is now flooded with light. I take a long, scrutinizing look at this fellow as he does the same to me. There's a weary slump to his shoulders. Deep furrows are etched across the brown forehead, and small wrinkles accentuate the subtle desperation in his dark eyes. Suffering is what I see in his eyes. I don't like that. If I can see it, others can also. On second thought, maybe they can't. I care, so I'm looking for it; but they barely even see me, much less my suffering. No, they won't see it. Satisfied, I replace the cover on the light fixture and throw the cell into twilight darkness again. It's a twilight of my own choosing, fashioned with a razor blade and cardboard -- a snug-fitting cover to keep the glare of reality at bay. "Mankind cannot stand too much reality," as T. S. Eliot wrote.
I walk over to the bars, stick my arms through, lean upon them, look out the window. It's still raining. My ears suddenly pick up the distant sound of a key being fitted into a door down the catwalk. The door clangs shut. Footsteps . . . approaching. It's the Man, making his rounds. I instinctively pull my arms back into the cell. A man with his arms hanging outside the bars is vulnerable; they can easily be broken. Keys jangle loudly and another door, closer, creaks open. There are voices, movement; a door bangs shut. Men awakened down the line, outside solitary, shout curses into the night. It must be Old Asshole. The bastard. None of the others on this shift would slam doors like that. He does it deliberately, to wake me up if I am sleeping. I'm the only one back here now. Another of Old Asshole's petty tricks. I mustn't show my anger.
The trusty appears first, as usual, on the catwalk outside the bars. The trusty is the Man's first line of defense in case of danger. He's a faithful lapdog, this one, always eager to do his master's bidding. He nods at me, his eyes searching my cell, hunting for something to tell his master about. I look through him. Old Asshole appears at his side. He looks at me, and I look right back at him, straight into his blue eyes. I don't like him, and he knows it. He wants to be important, to feel superior, and the only way he can do it is to grind down the prisoners in his charge. He doesn't like me because I won't feed his ego.
"Still woke, huh, Rideau?"
"How you gettin' along? Doin' all right?"
It's a meaningless greeting the world over, even among free people. But here it's stupid, too. What prisoner locked in a system designed to brutalize, crush, or destroy him has ever been "all right"?
"I'm doing just fine."
"It's pretty chilly back here. Want your window closed?"
"If you want to. It don't really matter to me."
"It's turning cold. You're gonna freeze your ass off with the window open."
"Do whatever you want. It doesn't make any difference."
He turns to his lapdog and tells him to close the window. Relief flows through my body as my muscles, taut in their struggle against the cold, begin to relax. My face remains expressionless.
Old Asshole turns back to me. "They tell me your buddy cracked this morning. Tore up his cell. Went stone crazy."
"Guess he couldn't take that cell no more."
"How long had he been in solitary? About a year, huh?"
Old Asshole shakes his head slowly like a snake charmer and tries to pin me with his gaze. "A long time. Course, that ain't nothing compared
to how long you been locked down. What is it now? Ten, twelve years?"
"Something like that."
He turns his eyes away from mine, shaking his head. "I don't see how you held up this long."
I could tell him that he can't understand it because he doesn't understand what it's like to be your own man. I could tell him that he's never been a man and never will be, that he doesn't have the strength. Take away the social props that hold him up and he'd go down like a line of dominoes. Deep down he knows it, and he expects everyone to possess the same weakness. He can't understand why I don't, and it aggravates his fears about himself and his own sense of inferiority. I could tell him all this about himself, but I say nothing. He looks at me. "Think you'll end up like him?"
A smile brushes his lips. He nods his head, like he knows something I don't. I feel the urge to slap that smug look off his face.
"You think you're tough, huh, Rideau?"
"No. Just competent."
His eyes study my cell, then me. "Everybody else in this place gives, lets themselves go a little. Their cells, their appearance. I even let go sometimes, and I ain't a prisoner. But you gotta be different. Your cell always gotta be neat and clean, everything in its place. You stay shaved, hair combed -- always fixed up like you waitin' to go somewhere. You don't ever bend, not even a little, do you?"
"What have you seen since you've been here?"
"Oh, I haven't seen you do it, yet. But I will."
"I wouldn't count on it if I were you."
"I can count on it. You're not as tough as you want people to believe. And let me tell you something," he says, tapping the bars with his keys. "No matter how tough you think you are, this steel is a whole lot tougher. You'll bend."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
He turns to leave. "We'll see."
"No. You'll see. I already know."
A steel door slams down the walk, and I listen to the footsteps until they fade away. Alone again. Silence engulfs me. I reach for a cigarette, feel the smoke pouring into my lungs as I inhale deeply. I smoke too much. I know I should quit. This poison only contributes to my physical deterioration, compounds the lack of exercise and poor diet. My lungs must be shit. To hell with it. Smoking is the only luxury left to me.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. One . . . two . . . three . . . That idiot. Old Asshole actually expects to see me break. What he doesn't know is that being broken requires my permission. I'm not about to surrender my manhood, my dignity, or my self respect. They may have stripped me of everything else, but I will not permit myself to be reduced to a human dog. I'll die first. Of course, insanity is always possible -- no, probable. How in hell can a man live for years like this and remain sane? It's impossi --
I halt my pacing in midstride: I could be insane now! I wouldn't necessarily know it. I shiver. Suppress it, Wilbert. I start pacing again. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. My eyes, searching for something to latch on to, scan the walls and find the rivets. The number of rivets in here impresses me, as it has before. These walls are well held together. But, then, they'd have to be; otherwise I'd get out, wouldn't I? And they don't want that. I know the number of rivets because I've counted them before: 348 of them. Or was it 358? I frown, trying to remember. It's important to get it right. I need to know exactly the number of rivets holding me in. I decide to count them again, to be sure. I start counting, and soon I'm on my hands and knees, counting the rivets under my bunk, when a picture of what I must look like flashes through my mind. I have to smile. If Old Asshole could only see me now. He'd laugh until he shit himself, figuring for sure I'd gone crazy. And it is crazy. Me, down on all fours, counting the rivets in a steel tomb. It looks like insanity, but my mind is intact. Old Asshole will have to wait a little longer. When I finish counting, it's 358 rivets after all.
I crush out the cigarette, which has burned to a nub in the ashtray. I lie down, gaze up at the ceiling, walls. Aren't we always struggling against walls? I ask myself. Not always of concrete and steel, but walls nonetheless— ignorance, poverty, indifference, oppression? Yes, yes, definitely oppression. I can't remember a time when I wasn't a prisoner. But who is ever really free? "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"; that's what Janis Joplin sang. I start humming "Me and Bobby McGee" until the thought of all that wasted talent, that gift, gets to me. Shooting shit in her arm. Goddamn! She fought her way out of this stinkhole. Port Arthur, her hometown, is right over the Texas line from Lake Charles. The girl escaped the grip of these crazy motherfuckers. She was free, whatever demons she had. A fucking shame, that was. But what the fuck do I know about freedom anyway?
Struggle is the only reality I've ever known. The world I was born into was sharply divided between black and white, good and evil, innocent and guilty. It was a world of absolutes. Whites ruled, I learned, because God demanded it. I was guilty the moment I was born. The guilty labored under the weight of poverty and misery. Locked in economic bondage, they were made servants of the innocents. The females were ravished, the males emasculated; they were insulted, humiliated, and brutalized as a matter of course. Being lynched with impunity at the pleasure of the mob was the just desert of the guilty, the wrong, the black.
I close my eyes and see a huge, ancient courtroom, built to be a temple. There is rich, dark wood that smells like lemon rind and gleaming brass everywhere. The ceiling rises several stories up into a dome, like a Byzantine church. The floors are marble, polished to a high shine. There is an altar up front where the judge sits; the choir box is off to his left, my right. To enter this temple of justice, you have to climb a mountain of marble steps to the white- columned portico that shields the front door. A huge old battle cannon squats off to the left of the steps as you approach. To the right, high atop a white pillar, a copper soldier has his left arm raised as in battle. The inscription on the topmost marble block of the base says the south's defenders. On the block below, 1861–1865, and beneath that, our heroes. At the base of the statue, there are wreaths or flowers in a vase, with a Confederate battle flag propped alongside. I know this, even though I cannot see the statue from my seat in the courtroom. I know it because, for as long as I can remember, there have always been flowers and a Confederate battle flag there. I do not have to wonder what the city fathers meant to suggest about justice in their community when they erected a copper soldier leading the charge for the Old South on these courthouse grounds. Floodlights set in concrete ensure that every prosecutor, every lawyer, every plaintiff, every defendant, every witness, every victim, every judge, every juror, every deputy, every spectator, every reporter, every researcher, every visitor, every civil servant, every politician, and every black person who passes or enters, day or night, will see the patron saint of this temple.
Inside, a drama is taking place. A teenage boy, flanked by white lawyers, sits at a large table, a black- robed figure before him. Twelve white men, vested with the power of life and death, are seated over to the right, in the choir box. A clot of newspaper reporters sits off to the left. Behind the black boy is a sea of white faces. A carnival atmosphere prevails as characters parade to the witness stand and play their roles with unholy indifference to the significance of the drama. The performances are well received, the audience entertained.
The judge breaks for intermission and leaves the altar. The actors and members of the audience huddle in small groups, chattering gaily as if they were at a cocktail party instead of in church, completely indifferent to the shadow of death hovering nearby, awaiting the end of the play. The talk flows freely around the boy and is often about him, as though he were merely a gargoyle, an inanimate object of discussion devoid of intelligence or sensitivity.
The drama unfolding is to decide whether the boy will live or die. Curiously, the boy is relaxed and appears unconcerned, which some in the audience see as his lack of feeling. What they don't know is that the drama holds no suspense for the boy. He knows he's going to die. It doesn't matter to him. He has long since grown tired of the cruelty and meaninglessness of his existence, though his fierce pride and iron spirit will not allow him to kill himself. Someone else will have to do that. So he watches with detached interest as the drama plays out to its fateful end where absolute good will triumph over absolute evil.
"We find the defendant guilty as charged."
The jangle of keys knifes through my reverie. My eyes fly open, instantly alert. The hatch on the door of my cage swings back silently, leaving a hole in the metal the size of a shoe box. It's the Man, but a friendly one. I roll off the bunk to my feet. He stuffs several packages and some books through the hole. I grab them and quickly toss them on the bunk.
He puts his face in the hatch. He looks like mashed potatoes and redeye gravy with his bad skin and birthmark. I wonder if that's why he works here instead of in the outside world.
"They fixed some barbecue for us today. I figgered you might like some. When you finish, break the bones and flush 'em down the commode so nobody'll know."
I nod my head.
"The candy and books come from some of the prisoners down the line. They got a sex novel in the bunch. The boys swear by it -- told me to tell you it's guaranteed to raise your dick all night."
Convict humor. I deadpan, "Yeah, I really need that."
He smiles. "It's supposed to be a joke. They just kiddin' you."
I nod. "I know. You want the book? My sex problem is bad enough without it."
He shakes his head. "Naw. I ain't got time to do no reading."
A quiet settles between us. The unfamiliarity of human company -- other than my mother, whose face pokes through the hole every Saturday afternoon, and Sister Benedict Shannon, an activist nun who sometimes stops to see me when she visits the jail -- makes me nervous and self-conscious. After so much solitude and silence, small talk comes hard to me. My mind searches for a conversation piece.
"Old Asshole came by earlier. Shooting his shit, as usual," I say.
"Yeah? Well, don't let it get to you. He ain't worth it. I don't see why they ain't got rid of that bastard a long time ago. He don't do nothing but rile everybody up and cause a whole lotta trouble."
"That's the truth."
"It's just a question of time before somebody hurts him." He moves away. "Look, I gotta go. Take it easy. I'll check you tomorrow night."
The hatch closes; silence returns. I scan the books and stash the sex novel under my mattress. There are three food packages, and I can tell by the feel and the smell what is in each of them, but I play the old Christmas Eve guessing game anyway. Is it barbecued chicken, pork ribs, or beef ribs? Is it white bread or corn bread? Are the potatoes panfried or French fried? After I tease myself a bit, I open the packages and wolf down every trace of one man's human kindness. He could lose his job for bringing me this food. My eyes fall upon the candy the prisoners sent me -- two little treasures that, in other circumstances, could cost a man his life in this place. A Snickers and a Butter-Nut, contraband as hell and therefore worth their weight in blood, should one man try to steal them from another. In a world defined by deprivation, things that are trivial in the outside world are magnified to a significance far beyond their street value. This Butter-Nut bar, for example, cost someone real money, which is already in short supply among the inmates. There's the cost of the candy itself, and the added value attached by every hand that facilitated its journey from the candy counter at Walgreens into the jail to the guys down the line, who sent it to me. Hell, they may even have had to grease the palm of the guard who passed it to me. Even more than the money, though, is the cost of getting caught: The guard could get demoted or fired, and an inmate could get thrown in the Dungeon for dealing in contraband.
It's strange, even to me, that men who wouldn't hesitate to rape or kill each other band together to help me, just because I've been locked down in solitary for so long. Most of them don't even know me. But my tormentors have made me a living legend in this jail: the one they can't break. The irony is not lost on me that it's the professed Christians who are so cruel and unmerciful, while it's the criminal misfits and social dregs who try to help me, usually without my even asking.
I flush the chicken bones and wrappings down the toilet. I turn back to the bunk, pick up the candy, and hide it for later. I light a cigarette and stand at the bars looking out into the night. The rain has stopped.
A rare sensation crawls over me -- amazement at the fact that there are people out there loving and being loved or sleeping peacefully. People who experience joy, peace, and love. There are people out there who know nothing of fierce struggles for survival and sanity, struggles against aloneness, cruelty, violence, danger, rapes, rebellions, and madness. It's like knowing that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong lived in a spaceship on their way to the moon, weightless and floating on air. You can know it as a fact, but you cannot imagine the experience.
The sensation passes and an old longing surfaces -- a longing to escape this harsh, ultra-masculine jungle unsoftened by love or beauty, where everyone is engaged in a perpetual battle to prove who is the toughest, the strongest, the cruelest. I long to get away from this field of pain and misery. Not to the city; that's just another jungle. I want to flee to the country, where I imagine there is no madness, no hate, no war, no animals save those that walk on four legs. Out where life is simple, peaceful, and clean. Where rippling creeks feed open meadows and green leaves dance on soft breezes to the chirpings of gaily colored birds. I long for the fragrance of honeysuckle in my nostrils, the air of innocence. And alongside the creek, clover matted from tender lovemaking. This is freedom -- to work, to love, to aspire. To find my place in the world. To --
Then I think: Could I fit into that world out there? So much has changed. I was a boy when I left that world. I know nothing of the world that has taken its place. How could I adjust to that world when I couldn't even adjust to the world I knew, the world that shaped me, or misshaped me? Having lived in this jungle for so long, could I function in a civilized world?
Am I really winning my struggle to improve my mind and retain my sanity and humanness, or is my success an illusion? Am I just losing my humanity more slowly than those around me? With no guidance, and no yardstick to measure progress against, I can't tell.
I suck angrily on a cigarette. I squash it out, a fierce determination flaring in me. I can adjust, and I will adjust. If I could adjust to the cruelties of imprisonment, I can adjust to anything. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five. Stop. I lean upon the bars, look about my cell. Eat, drink, piss, shit, walk. Back and forth. Back and forth. Like a pendulum. No love, no satisfaction, no friendship, no peace -- always lonely, always wanting and never having. This is not living; this is existing, like a head of cabbage on a garden row.
I look out the window and up at the heavens. It's difficult to relate to Him. He's too indifferent to pain and human misery. Most people look to Him with gratitude -- for their lives, if nothing else. Gratitude eludes me. He did me no favor allowing me to be born into this world.
I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of injustice. I want to disrupt violently the comfort of my tormentors, to impress them with my pain and misery by making them feel something of what I feel. My hands tense up, aching to hit something. I could take it out on the floor, but my knuckles are still half raw from the savage scrubbing I gave it last night. I reach for my cigarettes instead. I smoke and pace until the rebellion subsides. I return to the bars and look out the window.
The fools. Don't they realize how much of their trouble comes from making men desperate, driving them to despair and rebellion?
A heaviness settles on me, as it has before and will again -- a sense of death. My chest feels tight; I feel cramped and smothered. I literally ache from despair. Long ago, a cruel world that regarded my ambition as insolence and my claim to equality as blasphemy ignited in me fires of frustration fueled by ignorance. I stand in the ominous silence of this steel tomb and contemplate the utter destruction of life that followed -- my victim's, my family's, my own. I agonize for what has been lost, what could have been. From this wreckage, I will save something yet, though I cannot see how. I look at the books on my bunk. I know they are the keys to keeping my sanity, and they are also my salvation. If I die in here, I am not going to die an ignorant man. I am going to learn something about the world and taste something of life before I leave it, if only through books. And if I somehow survive this experience, I am going to need all the education I can milk from these books.
On the horizon the first rays of dawn appear, softening the darkened world. I am like the lone soldier trapped behind enemy lines, weary and weaponless, torn between hope and despair. I stare out the window until the flood of morning bathes the world, bringing light, hope, and life -- to others. The joint awakens, and I hear the first stirrings of a new day. There are noises in the hall. It's breakfast time.
The hatch opens. "Well . . . hello there, Rideau," a voice says as I turn away from the window. The mask I wear to conceal my feelings falls into place.
"I see you're up early this morning," the Man says, slipping a tray through the hole.
I give him a smile that I don't feel. "Just looking out the window."
"It's a nice morning. Gonna be a real pretty day today." He leans against the door. He wants to talk.
I move toward the hatch and the awkward conversation I do not want. "Yeah," I tell him, "it's going to be a beautiful day."
Months passed and the raw dampness of Louisiana's winter gave way to the swelter of the Southern sun. Still there was no ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The justices had not yet taken action on my appeal when in June 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Furman v. Georgia decision abolishing the death penalty as it then existed and voiding all death sentences in America.
In the wake of Furman, the Louisiana Supreme Court began ordering the state's condemned resentenced to life imprisonment and releasing them from their solitary cells on death row into the relative freedom of the prison at large, where they worked and mingled with other people. It was nearly a year before the court got around to my case. Eight of the nine justices saw no problem with anything that had ever happened in "this case [which] has been in the courts for many years." On May 7, 1973, they affirmed my murder conviction and, because of Furman, ordered me sentenced to life imprisonment.
The legal battle for my life was over; there was nothing left to appeal or to do, my lawyers told me. It was the last word I would hear from any of them for more than a quarter century. I was taken from the Baton Rouge courtroom where I was resentenced and ushered back to Angola.
Excerpted from In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau Copyright 2010 by Wilbert Rideau. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.