In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance Audio CD – Audiobook, April 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.”
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
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I recommend this book to anyone interested in the pitfalls of the criminal justice system, as Rideau lays out the problems facing the incarcerated - ranging from violence, substandard resources, and rape - without sensationalizing the facts or falling victim to outrageous hyperbole. This book is also interesting, as it follows the evolution of capital punishment from the Jim Crow era, to the Supreme Court's 1972 Furman ruling, to present day. "In the Place of Justice" is a must read for anyone taking civil litigation because it puts a very human face to statutes governing capital punishment and the appeals process.
I ordered the book for research and found a gold mine. A wealth of information about how the politics behind the American correctional system bleeds of corruption. The system is driven by money and power that results in a subculture of "human wreckage - tortured souls and destroyed lives."
In brief, the author was raised in the Jim Crow -era South during the most tumultuous segment of the civil rights struggle. Naturally, he was from an economically deprived background and had a bad home life too with an abusive and then absent father. Rideau, displaying an obtuse but understandable concern for his personal safety, working as he did in a white-owned shop located in a white neighborhood, purchased a handgun and a knife for "personal protection". This decision had dramatic and unexpected consequences for his future.
In a thoughtless adolescent move, Rideau decided to reverse his fortune by robbing a local bank and starting a "new life" somewhere on the West Coast. As expected, the robbery went wrong fast and, further compounding his bungled crime, Rideau took 3 bank personnel hostage. Driving through rural Louisiana, the naive criminal became lost and panicked. His hostages escaped and, in a frenzy of fear, Rideau shot and killed a woman and wounded another. He was quickly captured and transported to the local jail where, of course, a hostile mob awaited him. He expected vigilante "justice" (lynching) but instead was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He was transferred to Angola, the "crown jewel" of the Louisiana State Criminal Justice System gulag ("Life is cheap in Angola, as the New Orleans singer Dr John wrote). Through a complex course redolent with witness manipulation, suppression of evidence, jury-rigging and other judicial transgressions unfortunately typical of the time and place (but hauntingly evocative of our current judicial system), his death penalty was deferred (due to the 1972 US Supreme Court "Furman vs. Georgia" decision) and was eventually "reduced" to a life sentence.
Unlike many or most prisoners, Rideau used his incarceration to brilliantly enhance himself: he learned to write (journalism), became editor of the prison newspaper and achieved national recognition for his accomplishments. After over 4 decades in jail, Rideau, through the efforts of a dedicated team of super-lawyers and supporters, he achieved freedom.
Rideau makes two major points in "Place of Justice", the first regarding the nature of the criminal justice system and the second on the circumstances of his "redemption". Approximately equal portions of the book are devoted to these intertwined themes. On the first issue, the author convincingly demonstrates the incompetence, racial prejudice, political machinations, entrenched interests (financial and political) varying combinations of which are the motive forces behind the "prison-industrial complex". Frankly, the degree of abuse suffered by many prisoners is horrifying (as duly and unemotionally noted) although paradoxically, Rideau seems to have lead a charmed existence during his long incarceration. This blends almost seamlessly into his personal story, which is the second major theme. An element of egoism and self-glorification seems to permeate the book: the Angola prison administration, by Rideau's telling, viewed him as a lynchpin interlocutor between staff and prisoners; the prisoners conferred on him near demi-god status; the public relied on his "Angolite" magazine for insightful, probing, scrupulously honest reporting; the field of journalism was in his debt for his seminal contributions to the discipline and his example would be a light for the potential criminal guiding him away from a bad end. While this recounting conveys the impression that Rideau was insufferably full of himself, the facts seem to support all of his claims. After all, who else has emerged from the penal system with quite so many accolades and why would they be conferred on Rideau unless he genuinely merited them? While the retelling might be somewhat embellished (and what autobiography isn't guilty of that), the facts speak for themselves.
I would be remiss in failing to note that Rideau consistently expresses regret (he's actually quite contrite) about the crime he admits to committing. His crux argument in favor of a pardon from his life sentence is the nature of the crime: not premeditated, sentencing discrepancies between his high-profile case and the "industry standard", all coupled with the twisted prosecutorial efforts to manipulate evidence and witness testimony and pure judicial revenge exercised against him for his celebrity. Valid points all and, in the author's opinion, sufficient to reduce his sentence to "time served".
Rideau, of course, received the death penalty for his crime. Since 1973, 130 denizens of death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Still, Rideau is not a crusader against capital punishment. Its a bit hard to tell what his perspective on the death penalty in the abstract might be but, in common with many others, he is able to pillory the system for its inconsistencies (racism, classism, etc) and its incompetence. By this point in history, its generally recognized that the death penalty in the US is an aberration. Our country, alone among "advanced" democratic societies, wields capitol punishment as a "resource for political exchange and cultural consumption" in the words of David Garland. In other words,to paraphrase Justice John Paul Stevens, we use the state's monopoly on violence to kill people not for the deterrent effect of capital punishment (it doesn't exist); not because it serves the victim (he's dead), the family (is the loss of a life worse from murder than from a drunken driver, on whom capital punishment is never inflicted?); the state (it costs too much money, consumes too many resources and takes too much time); the prisoner (they spend about 30 years in jail anyway awaiting death); or even the general public. In America, this cultural artifact appears to be immutable, although significant shifts in public opinion on the death penalty, when lead by progressive legislators, has been documented in the UK when capital punishment was banned in the 1960s. . In the December 8, 2010 New York Times, columnist Nicolas Kristoff recounts the case of Kevin Cooper a black man in California,a who faces lethal injection next year for supposedly murdering a white family. A starkly dissenting group of judges argue compellingly that he was framed by police, concluding, "California may be about to execute an innocent man." The situation has become so egregious that former Supreme Court Justice Stevens has publicly and in a high-profile venue ("New York Review of Books"), recanted his pro-capital punishment opinion.
Judging from the liner blurbs, "In the Place of Justice" is a sort of glorified self-help book, an impression reinforced by the sub-title ("A Story of Punishment and Deliverance"). However, I found it a compelling autobiography which makes several important points (which I hope have been satisfactorily stated in this review) and does so with considerable literary merit. Its not a polemic but it is a tale of exceptionalism. I think, if Rideau was to put the entire message into a single "sound bite", it might be this one: "Give a prisoner a chance; with the right resources, encouragement and support, its possible to successfully re-enter society." Consider the alternative America is creating for itself...then consider other options. If that's his point, I think Rideau accomplished it.