Wilbert Rideau’s autobiography takes the reader on a dark journey through a black teenager’s botched bank robbery—during which he kills a white woman—and his narrow escape from a lynch mob in rural Louisiana, followed by 45 years inside Louisiana’s prison system and as many years of struggle to find justice in the courts. But despite its subject matter, In the Place of Justice is anything but depressing. It’s the story of the man that teenager became, and that story is fascinating and inspiring.
Rideau’s remorse for the crime that took the life of bank teller Julia Ferguson is a constant throughout this memoir. But it took him 45 years of imprisonment before he could finally disprove the falsehoods of the prosecution’s version of what happened that evening in 1961. Rideau was blessed with a motivated and talented legal team to help him win that struggle, and his memoir, while intensely personal, serves as a reminder of all those incarcerated who lack the power to contradict the prosecution’s case.
Rideau gained national support through his remarkable transformation into a prison journalist who won many of the nation’s most prestigious awards. He was incarcerated in Angola prison during the time when Angola was the bloodiest prison in the United States, and his articles in the prison magazine, The Angolite, served to expose many aspects of the violent life there. Both as a journalist and as a memoirist, Rideau chooses the complexities of truth over the simplifications of anger and bitterness, a trait that helped him to gain professional recognition. But more importantly, his articles also led to improvements within the prison. He made it a habit to always include a solution to the problems his articles exposed, and more often than one might expect, prison authorities worked with him to make the prison a safer place for inmates and staff.
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 potential 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 writes from Greensboro, North Carolina.