Jailhouse rock

In the Place of Justice
Wilbert Rideau
Profile; £12.99

WILBERT RIDEAU eventually became known as the most rehabilitated man in America, but it was a ferociously long process.

His book outlines the journey from his imprisonment in 1961 in Louisiana for murder to his eventual release in 2005. Not just imprisonment, either, but decades in Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, a jail with a terrifying reputation that reaches far beyond the Deep South.

Rideau’s book isn’t the expected expression of justice delayed as a result of institutional racism, however. For one thing, he committed the crime he was accused of, killing a woman and injuring another in a botched robbery.

As a result he was sentenced to death, a punishment which, ironically, may have saved his life. Spending years on death row — segregated from the general prison population — meant the teenage Rideau wasn’t forced to battle for survival among the violent inmates, but rather came to maturity, physical and mental, in relative safety.

Eventually his sentence was commuted to life after a lengthy legal battle, and when he was returned to the mainstream prison population, in 1973, he’d acquired a reputation as a death row veteran which kept him safe.

Rideau’s book doesn’t spare the details when it comes to the savagery of Angola. The general fear of prison centres on sexual violence, and Rideau explains ‘turning out’ — the process by which dominant prisoners enslaved others.

It became a way for the prison authorities to keep the prisoners in line — prison guards often counselled inmates to accept the ‘relationship’ they were in to make their time in the prison easier, but it also became a vicious circle for many.

Rideau recounts how one prisoner, ‘Stinky’ Dunn, was enslaved by another, serving as a ‘wife’ until the dominant prisoner was released. Dunn stopped showering — hence the nickname — to reduce his attractiveness but was forced to fight off potential rapists. Inevitably, he ended up killing one of his assailants, and what had originally been a relatively short stay in prison became a life sentence.

The reputation of Angola was so fearsome that Rideau says inmates waiting in other prisons for transfer there would rape and kill other prisoners in order to generate a reputation for themselves.

Yet Angola was also where Rideau found himself. When released into the general prison population he was disgusted to hear that The Angolite, the prison newspaper, had no black writers because it was difficult to find black inmates who could write. Rideau’s response was to set up a different newspaper, The Lifer, which became an instant success both inside and outside the prison. Rideau gives a good notion of the temperature of the time — San Quentin inmate George Jackson was writing books such as Soledad Brother, named after the prison of the same name, while the Attica prison riots also occurred in upstate New York in 1971. There was a willingness in the outside world to pay attention to what was happening in prisons, and Rideau was held up as an example of the potential for rehabilitation.

He became editor of The Angolite, finding a market for his freelance journalism, which often criticised the prison system. Rideau eventually attracted ABC’s Nightline and other high-profile TV shows to the prison for his reports, and seven years ago he was finally released. He helped produce an award-winning documentary about Angola and collected a George Polk Award and a Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award for his writing.

There’s no doubting Rideau’s writing ability. In The Place Of Justice is a lengthy book and often slips into a blizzard of detail but doesn’t lose its readers. There’s an unflinching quality to his descriptions, particularly of the brutal scenes he witnessed in nearly half a century behind bars, but it’s not all grim: Rideau finishes the book with a fine lyrical tribute to Linda George, the woman who worked on his behalf for almost two decades before marrying him three years after he left prison.

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