Saturday, May 29, 2010

In The Place Of Justice by Wilbert Rideau

In 1961, at the age of 19, Wilbert Rideau - guilty of manslaughter in the aftermath of a botched robbery - was convicted of first degree murder by an all-white, all-male jury in Calcasiu Parish Louisiana. Ten years later, his death sentence was commuted to life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Rideau became editor of the the prison news magazine The Angolite, and was instrumental in transforming it into the best prison publication in the country, publishing exposes on prison violence, segregation, and sexual slavery.

Although ten years and six months had been the understood length of a life sentence in Louisiana for half a century, Rideau discovered that many murderers had been made eligible for parole after serving a third of that and were eligible to be discharged without parole after serving half of it. Furthermore, searching the records at the office of the Secretary of State in 1990, Linda LaBranche, an investigator for the state board of ethics at the time and subsequently his wife, found that of the more than five hundred executive clemencies granted to murderers since 1962, the year Rideau was convicted, none had served as much time as he. Of thirty-one convicted murderers who had entered the gates of Angola in that year six carried death sentences; the other twenty-five, life sentences. By 1990 all had been freed except Rideau.

Linda LaBranche also discovered that up until 1976 Calcasieu Parish, where Rideau was convicted, had sentenced to death every black man convicted of killing a white, the highest rate ever documented in America. Whites who murdered whites received the death penalty 23.3 percent of the time; blacks who murdered blacks, 10.4 percent of the time. Convicted murderers from Calcasieu who had been released since 1961 had spent an average of 12 years behind bars; no black convicted of murdering a white had ever been granted clemency and freed. Rideau was imprisoned longer than any offender in the recorded history of the Parish.

During the forty years he spent there conditions at Angola State varied according to the reigning political regimes, constantly changing laws and personnel both in the Department of Corrections and the prison itself... (here I pick up the story in the author's own words)

In 1999 the outside world no longer had any way of knowing the truth of what was happening inside Angola. Under the policies put in place by Commissioner Elayn Hunt and Warden Paul Phelps in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice nearly a quarter of a century before, inmates had confidential telephone and mail communications with outside media, as a check against the total and arbitrary power wielded by their keepers. That was abolished. The Angolite's role of ferreting out and exposing problems, or simply providing factual information, had in effect ended. The only information coming out of Angola was what warden Burl Cain wanted the public to know, and there was no way for anybody to check its accuracy.

I knew, as I knew at The Angolite's difficult birth twenty-three years before, that I had to tread carefully because I was no good to anyone if I didn't survive. But life without the real meaning journalism had allowed me to weave into my prison existence was tedious. There was little to look forward to. At the end of the day, I locked up the office, walked back to the dorm, and said to myself, I've got to get out of here. I lived from one Sunday to the next, desperate for Linda's visit. I clung to the hope that the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would reverse the State Courts recent ruling denying me a new trial. It finally came on December 22 but I was to remain in Angola while the State appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Word came at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday in July of 2001. I had been re-indicted and would be returned to Calcasieu Parish for another trial. I arose at 4:00 a.m. the next morning. I showered and shaved, then woke my friends to break the news. No one knew what to say. All the men understood the difference between local jails and Angola. They knew, as I did, that I was headed into the worse stretch of time in my entire forty years of incarceration, worse even then death row. Local jails, for the most part, are full of untamed testosterone-charged youngsters. They're designed to be temporary holding stations for those waiting trial or those serving short sentences. The court cases of prisoners in these jails are often stalled and they have little opportunity to speak to any attorney. The DA's and judges know that, at some point, even if innocent, prisoners are going to come around, get tired of sitting around and accept whatever plea bargain is offered. It is rare for anybody except those charged with murder to get a trial.

A prison like Angola is a place where inmates live for a long time, and as a result, it is a community with its own culture and with a responsible inmate power structure, social and recreational activities, sports teams, religious organizations, self-help clubs, legal representation, and even health care. Jails have none of this: Life in jail is idleness overlaid with chaos.

The assistant warden of the Main Prison arrived about 7:00 a.m. As an easy going and decent man, he assumed a confidential tone: “The people coming to get you are hateful. They've been fighting you a long time, and they won't turn the past loose. They are going to put you in chains and probably try to humiliate or hurt you in different ways. To them you are just a low-life prisoner, not a human being. You need to be prepared not to let them beat you down. You're stronger than that. I'm hoping you win this, and they don't send you back to Angola but we're keeping your bed and everything open just in case”. I appreciated the kindness but realized, of course, that he expected me to return to Angola in no time. Later I realized that if I were re-convicted I would be sent to Wade Correctional Center, a small prison in the northern part of the state where high-profile prisoners are sent to live in solitary cells for their own safety. Life there is very hard, with little in the way of clubs, activities and the kind of opportunities to learn and grow that are part of the Angola world. This became a crushing weight on me during the four years of the retrial process.

The deputy sheriff from Calcasieu Parish arrived. Though I had often traveled through-out the State on lecture tours restrained only by the presence of an unarmed guard, he put shackles on my ankles, a chain around my waste to which he attached handcuffs, and the dreaded iron box affixed between my wrists designed to prevent escape artists from picking their locks. The box tightened the chain on the handcuffs. They bit into my wrists. Along with four armed guards and a police car following we drove in a van all the way to Lake Charles, two hundred miles away, without exchanging a single word.

After an abnormally prolonged period in solitary confinement I was finally placed among the jail's general population. Unlike the harsh and barren lock-up of forty years earlier this jail at least had a cable TV, a chest for ice and cold water, reading material and a fledgling literacy and GED program. There were pay phones located everywhere for inmates to use at usurious prices and a commissary where inmates could purchase small radios, cheap clothing, seasoning for food and unhealthy snacks at rip-off prices.

When I was jailed forty years ago, a substantial percentage of the detainees were unable to read or write and many more did so only with great difficulty. Today's inmates are better schooled but more stupid. Most are drop-outs who travel in marginal orbits with few perceived options in life. They spend their time telling a retelling street experiences, talking about the personalities who populate their small worlds, and play cards, chess, or dominoes. They neither watch nor read the news. Their TV fare is a diet of sports, violent action movies, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Saturday-morning kiddie cartoons, and Discovery Channel documentaries that show violent animal behavior. Some listen endlessly to rap music, their heads bobbing like corks in running water, or dance by themselves in a corner. Others engage in boisterous horseplay or argue over petty things. Their power to reason with others is almost non-existent, and the loud disputes that often end in threats stem from an inability to explain their point of view to those who don't understand. Crippled by rap slang and a deficient sense of cause and effect, they simply repeat themselves over and over, getting louder and louder, until one of the frustrated frustrated speakers turns to non-participants in search of agreement or begins to issue threats, raising his voice to dominate and drown out the point of view he's unable to win over.

It was painful for me to look at these street-wise weeds, these outcasts and misfits. I knew only too well that they do not care about a world that does not value them. This makes them walking time bombs.

I was fortunate, however, that my history made me a living legend in the jail. Returning to Calcasieu after a thirty year absence, I was at once both a heroic larger-than-life figure and a martyr, generating admiration, sympathy, and respect among many, especially blacks. I soon settled down in the dorm and began listening to the inmates' problems and cases, though I'd heard it all before. I was able to help some of the inmates with their cases. After some months I was given an office right outside my dorm where I could try to facilitate solutions for legitimate problems and which served as a quiet haven away from the constant cacophony of TV and jive in the dorm.

Being allowed visits from a religious adviser I eventually made contact Rev. J.L. Franklin the pastor of the Bethal Metropolitan Baptist Fellowship Church in Lake Charles. He was a throwback to the ministers of the civil rights days, who took leadership on social and civic matters as part of their duties to their parishioners. He was deeply concerned about the poor quality of education in the black schools of Lake Charles. I urged him to run for a seat on the predominantly white school board. He knew nothing about politics, so I ran his campaign. He unseated the entrenched incumbent and immediately stated working to improve schools, as well as becoming vocal about other local social issues, most often those concerning racial divisions and inequalities. He visited me two or three times a week and he came to call me “The Professor”. We became fast friends though even after I was released for “time served” on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, 2005 - owing to the lasting animosity of the community- I could never safely return to Lake Charles again.

Two months after my release- floating along carefree on the good will and generosity of my friends and loved ones, Judge David Richie reentered my life. He charged me nearly $127,000 in court costs. He decreed that despite having declared me indigent, I am to pay for the cost of my fourth trial because it was I who requested it. The fact that I did so because I was serving an unconstitutional sentence flowing from an unconstitutional trial was immaterial, as was the fact that I served forty-four years in prison on a sentence that was dischargeable in ten and half. Nobody was talking about reimbursing me. Someone even wrote a letter to the Lake Charles newspaper and suggested that I should reimburse the state for the cost of my room and board all those extra years that they housed and fed me. The fact that no other criminal defendant in Louisiana history has ever been assessed the cost of his trial was not lost on Judge Richie. He simply asserted that he was not bound by what other judges have or have not done. He claimed to have the power to make me pay for the salaries of the sheriff's deputies who stood guard in the courtroom, the cost of transporting, housing, and feeding the jury that freed me; the cost of putting him and his staff up at a nice Monroe hotel during jury selection and feeding them at the city's best restaurant.

After months of anxiety and facing appeals that could last for years, I hired an attorney and got myself declared bankrupt and free of debt while still retaining $4,500 I received as a settlement. from Time magazine for the years they gave reprint permission for an article I once wrote for them. Thus, I was able to contribute money to household expenses and sleep well I night while writing this book.

1 comment:

  1. ”In The Place of Justice; A Story of Punishment and Deliverance” by Wilbert Rideau; Alfred A Knopf,
    Borzoi Books, 2010; supported in part by a grant from the Soros Justice Fellowship Program of the Open Society Institute.

    To the late C. Paul Phelps

    “Success is relative. It was what we can make of the mess we have made of things”- T.S. Eliot