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

Overview

Wilbert Rideau, an award-winning journalist who spent forty-four years in prison, delivers a remarkable memoir of crime, punishment, and ultimate triumph.
 
After killing a bank teller in a moment of panic during a botched robbery, Wilbert Rideau was sentenced to death at the age of nineteen. He spent several years on death row at Angola before his sentence was commuted to life, where, as editor of the prison newsmagazine The Angolite, he...
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Overview

Wilbert Rideau, an award-winning journalist who spent forty-four years in prison, delivers a remarkable memoir of crime, punishment, and ultimate triumph.
 
After killing a bank teller in a moment of panic during a botched robbery, Wilbert Rideau was sentenced to death at the age of nineteen. He spent several years on death row at Angola before his sentence was commuted to life, where, as editor of the prison newsmagazine The Angolite, he undertook a mission to expose and reform Louisiana's iniquitous justice system from the inside. Vivid, incisive, and compassionate, this is a detailed account of prison life and a man who accepted responsibility for his actions and worked to redeem himself. It is a story about not giving up; finding love in unexpected places; the power of kindness; and the ability to do good, no matter where you are.

Winner of the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 1961, Rideau robbed a bank, took three hostages, forced one to drive them to a remote area, and shot them. Two lived. One, whom his shot failed to kill, he also stabbed. For this, Rideau spent 44 years in Angola prison. A black man, 19 years old at the time of the crime, Rideau was convicted three times by all-white juries. A mixed-race jury reduced his conviction to manslaughter. In the Place of Justice is his exploration of the American penal system, primarily the ways in which racism, both covert and institutionalized, plays a role in determining the length of prison sentences and the ways in which those sentences are served.

As editor of the prison newsletter, Rideau placed a high premium on journalistic integrity. He became a celebrity prisoner for his exposés on prison life, including sexual slavery, drugs, weapons, "families," petty guards unrestrained by management or conscience, inedible food, filthy conditions, and brutal rivalries.

Those incarcerated for violent crimes are often dehumanized by society, just as those who kill dehumanize their victims, parsing them over time to bothersome abstractions. If integrity can be defined as the willingness to hold oneself accountable, In the Place of Justice is as much a look inside Angola prison and the judicial system as it is a fascinating yet unsettling journey inside the minds of those who do time there.

David Oshinsky
[Rideau's] painfully candid memoir, In the Place of Justice, is indeed, as its subtitle promises, "a story of punishment and deliverance," told by a high school dropout who escaped Angola's electric chair to become an award-winning prison journalist. As such, Rideau is the rarest of American commodities—a man who exited a penitentiary in better shape than when he ­arrived.
—The New York Times
Dwight Garner
…a soul-stirring account of one man's long road to redemption…Mr. Rideau brings his calmly appraising journalistic eye to this memoir. It is packed with incisive details…His account of life in Angola is an important one, especially in light of the dearth of good American prison writing in recent years…
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
The life story of the author, who spent 44 years in prison thanks to an inept, often racist Louisiana criminal-justice system. That's not to say Rideau was a wrongly imprisoned innocent. In 1961 he was an angry 19-year-old who robbed a bank in Lake Charles, La., and took three employees hostage. When a hostage bolted from his car, he panicked, shooting one and stabbing another. The Louisiana jury that freed him in 2005 determined that his lack of premeditation merited only a manslaughter charge, but at the time he was charged with murder, after a biased trial in which prosecutors claimed he conducted a cold-blooded killing execution-style. The book is a testimony to his hopeful temperament, as well as a glimpse into the complex and violent society inside Louisiana prisons. His writing on prison rape, racism and poor management is firmly objective without being bloodless, reflecting the author's work as a staffer and eventual editor of the Angolite, the magazine published at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka "Angola"). Under his stewardship, the Angolite exposed numerous serious flaws in the prison system, such as routine electric-chair malfunctions, and Rideau's reporting earned him national attention and mainstream journalism awards. In some ways the book more closely resembles the memoir of a media mogul than a prison memoir-its pages chronicle numerous tussles between prison authorities over what he could and could not publish. Though the narrative is stuffed with detail about legal points regarding his trials, Rideau isn't narcissistic. He gives plenty of attention to the difficulties that prisoners suffered, and how much damage law-and-order Louisiana politicking-and well-meaningactivists-could do to their morale. His deepest respect is reserved for his girlfriend (now wife) Linda, who spent more than a decade working toward his release. The brief closing chapter emphasizes how much freedom transformed him, as the narrative shifts from legal concerns to navigating supermarkets, caring for his cats and starting a new life. An inspiring but never saccharine study of one prisoner's redemption. First printing of 50,000
Publishers Weekly
In 1961, 19-year-old Wilbert Rideau had a sudden inspiration about how to escape the confining poverty and racism of his life in the Louisiana bayou: he would rob a bank. The plan went horribly awry, with the ill-fated heist ending in tragedy: a bank teller lay dead. Almost all of Rideau’s adult life was subsequently spent in Angola, Louisiana’s dreaded state penitentiary, much of it on death row. Rideau was able to educate himself, eventually starting a prison newspaper and becoming a correspondent for NPR. The searing power of Rideau’s tale of tragedy, murder, and redemption is rendered all the more commanding because of the spare narration that Dominic Hoffman brings to the production. Hoffman never resorts to theatricality; there are no over-the-top Louisiana accents. Everything is filtered through Rideau’s own gripping perspective, a technique which communicates particularly well the narrowness and isolation of the author’s life on death row. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 22). (June)
From the Publisher
“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.”   
            -Ted Koppel
 
“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."
            -Ted Conover
 
“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.”
            -Elmore Leonard
 
“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.”
            -Publishers Weekly
 
“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.”
            -Library Journal
Library Journal
In 1961, Rideau, a disillusioned African American 19-year-old high school dropout, attempted robbery, panicked, and killed a white bank teller. A secret police camera recorded his confession and then broadcast it via a local television station. Rideau was sentenced to death in a segregated town by an all-white jury. While inside a violent high-security Louisiana prison, Rideau taught himself journalism and went on to win numerous prestigious awards for his work. In 1993, Life magazine declared him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." Although other convicts accused of similar crimes were regularly granted clemency after a decade, Rideau remained incarcerated for more than 40 years. Here he tells his story. VERDICT Unlike most prison memoirs (e.g., Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler), 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.—April Younglove, Rochester Reg. Lib. Council, NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307277305
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/3/2011
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 268,758
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Wilbert Rideau
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; served as correspondent for "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 an American Bar Association Silver Gavel 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.
 
www.wilbertrideau.com
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Read an Excerpt

3

Solitary

January 1972

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?”

I nod.

“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.”

I nod.

“Guess he couldn’t take that cell no more.”

“Guess not.”

“How long had he been in solitary? About a year, huh?”

“About.”

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?”

“Nope.”

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 selfrespect. 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.”

“All right.”

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 onme, 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

In the Place of Justice

A Story of Punishment and Redemption
By Wilbert Rideau

Vintage

Copyright © 2011 Wilbert Rideau
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307277305

3

Solitary

January 1972

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?”

I nod.

“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.”

I nod.

“Guess he couldn’t take that cell no more.”

“Guess not.”

“How long had he been in solitary? About a year, huh?”

“About.”

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?”

“Nope.”

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 selfrespect. 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.”

“All right.”

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 onme, 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.


From the Hardcover edition.

Continues...

Excerpted from In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau Copyright © 2011 by Wilbert Rideau. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2010

    Rideau leaves out an all-too-important part of his story....

    The lack of attention in this book to the violent crime committed by the author, which resulted in this book and its subsequent praise and celebration, is disturbing. It's true that he doesn't make light of it-in fact, he barely touches it at all (he gave an interview to a Louisiana newspaper saying that the four pages devoted to it in the book were only included at the demand of his publisher). This story would be a lot more inspiring if he actually were to acknowledge the suffering that his actions brought upon others, rather than just upon himself.

    I was recently struck by an author who wrote about her time in prison ("Orange Is The New Black" by Piper Kerman) and how it caused her to truly reflect upon the effect her crime had on others. True, her short time in prison was easier than Rideau's, as she was in a minimum-security women's prison, not Angola, but then again, her charge was a drug sentence that was very minor and ten years old, not murder. Still, she wrote that seeing women addicted to drugs in prison made her understand how her actions had harmed others, no matter how minor they seemed or how long ago they were. This attitude of remorse, as well as the acknowledgment of any personal responsibility for the suffering he experienced, is lacking in Rideau's work. Perhaps if this were more evident, or better yet, if he were donating some of the proceeds of this book to a worthy cause, as some rehabilitated criminals do- one that supported victims of crimes like his, or helped others similar to the young man he was from going down the same path-then his writing might be something worth supporting.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2010

    There's much more in this book than a single crime story. It is a clear-eyed look at the problems and abuses in the corrections and judicial systems of the state.

    In Rideau's final trial, many of the more sensational accounts of the crime were disproved, including the stab wound to the neck that was in fact proven to be a tracheotomy performed in the hospital. He doesn't make light of the terrible crime he committed nor of the hurt he caused. The intelligent reader, however, can witness his progression as a writer and as a human being, as he educates himself, becomes a leader respected by inmates and administrators alike, and after 44 years is ready to become a productive member of society, something he might never have been had he not utilized his time behind bars the way he did.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2010

    In the Place of Justice

    This is the best book I have ever read on our criminal justice system, and Louisiana's, in particular. It is extremely well-written and thought-provoking. This is a must-read!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2010

    rehabilitation

    That's wonderful that he is rehabilitated. It is disturbing to see him honored everywhere as a special guest, however. There are receptions celebrating his stardom in the state where he committed the cold-blooded kidnappings and murder. Unbelievable.

    2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 20, 2010

    A Story of Punishment and Deliverance

    I couldn't put In The Place of Justice down. Wilbert Rideau' accounts of punishment and deliverance gave me a new understanding of what it means to be in prison and what it means to be free. His understanding of what it means to be human and to be able to trust has many facets. Years forced to stay in prison for his crime did not have the power to imprison who he was and who he was to become. The power in this book can be found in the questions that are raised in the mind of the reader and searching for the light to find the answers. As Rideau helped people within the prison so his book/story will help many more inside and outside the walls. This book is a gift to all who read it.
    - Deen Thompson

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2010

    Perseverance

    I have been interested in Wibert Rideau since viewing the "Farm." After reading the injustice in this case, I was flabbergasted that he had to spend 44 years incarcerated, but other prisoners (white and black) were released after 10 years 6 months, outrageous. Although, I am not condoning what he did, but the system has to be fair to all prisoners. What he did was vicious and brutal, but 44 years in prison caused him to reflect and to emerge as a better person. Wilbert's book should be disseminated to all youth in this country and abroad. It will definitely give them insight of what can happen if they make bad decisions. Many of us have not been behind bars for 44 years, but our behavior towards one another is atrocious.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2010

    Could hardly put it down

    After hearing the author on National Public Radio, I knew I had to read his book. It's a well written, detailed account of his time in Angola prison and a determination to survive. Rideau never hides from his crime. He tells of his legal fight, rehabilitation, and longing for normalcy and a second chance. Well worth the read.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2010

    Transformation

    I have lived in Louisiana since 1980 and have followed Wilbert Rideau's story the entire time. I always believed that he should be eligible for parole at some point when fair-minded people in charge of the system believed it was time. I also saw that fair-minded people were not in charge of the system. He was too famous,too outspoken, and a black murder in a racist state with corrupt whites and blacks in power. I was glad in 2005 when he finally got out. It always seemed to me that he had changed and had proven he had rehabilitated himself with some help from the prison system amid a hellish environment. I don't think prisoners should be in a spa-like setting, but they surely should be in a humane environment and should at least have safe conditions with fair options to be rehabilitated and then freed to go into society and have a second chance. Otherwise we just reinforce the violence and anti-social actions that led them to crime in the first place. I think we should set an example of how civilized humans act. Otherwise we are no better than the criminals.

    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.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 17, 2010

    a murderer has to pay for his crime - unbelievable

    I have been rehabilitated but I was passed over for paraole - I have been rehabilitated but I was passed over for clemency - I have been rehabiliated but I was left in prision / there - you have just read all that this book has to say

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2010

    In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau is a must-read for clergy

    In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau is a must-read for clergy, families, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prisoner advocates, and all those who believe in rehabilitation, redemption, and especially in the sacredness of life. Hopefully it will foster discussions on how to prevent mass incarceration of the poor, how to use imprisonment to prepare offenders to be useful and productive citizens of society, and how victims' families can be helped to heal.
    This beautifully written and enlightening story of life in a brutal prison show Mr. Rideau to be a very intelligent man with "a strength for life, a strength to hope where others are resigned, strength to hold one's head up when everything seems to go wrong, power to bear setbacks, strength to never leave the future to the opponent, but lays claim to it for oneself", - quote from I Loved This People by theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer - a true picture of Mr. Rideau's forty four years in Angola Prison and his miraculous survival and freedom. I'm honored to have been his spiritual adviser for most of that time.
    Sister Benedict Shannon

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  • Posted August 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Book for every person passionate about Criminal Justice

    I am a criminal justice student and read this out of curiosity and I am very glad I did. It was an excellent read and more then enough shared Wilbert Rideau's true passion about how unjustly he was treated. It makes you appreciate your freedom to simply walk down the street as he tells in depth how prisons 40 years ago were ran and how that compares to today. The story does have a happy ending but unfortunately one that came 30 years to late.

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  • Posted June 13, 2010

    Informative and Inspirational

    As someone well familiar with both the Louisiana penal system and Wilbert Rideau's long journey through the justice system, I find this book utterly compelling. (One of the angry Anonymous reviewers has his facts wrong; he apparently missed the gavel-to-gavel AP reports of the last trial, where a lot of the "facts" he presents were disproved.) The book offers a view of the prison system not to be found elsewhere, one that acknowledges the harshness and boredom of incarceration but also acknowledges the humanity of many of the guards as well. In the course of the book, you see a prison as it is transformed from a brutal, violent environment to a more civilized place through efforts of wardens and inmates alike, and you also see the personal transformation of Rideau himself from the ignorant 19-year-old kid who killed a woman to a thoughtful and mature man whose insights have much to offer. His book is both informative and inspirational, and everyone could learn from the last chapter of his book, where we are reminded of the opportunities for joy and happiness that are everywhere around us that most of us no longer see.

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    Posted July 26, 2010

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    Posted June 15, 2010

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    Posted May 24, 2011

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    Posted August 9, 2011

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    Posted March 2, 2011

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