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In the Place of Justice

 

 

Throughout history, prisoners have chronicled their experience behind bars, striving to illuminate society’s darkest and most forgotten places through their own tales of struggle and suffering. But none has approached the task with the courage, compassion and literary grace of Wilbert Rideau. Many inmates, confronted by the injustices that Rideau was forced to endure over 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, would have simply railed against “the system” or lashed out against their captors. Rideau, by contrast, sets out on a dangerous and deeply moving journey of transformation, determined to atone for his crime in the only way that matters: by leading a life committed to both personal redemption and institutional reform.

A ninth-grade dropout who kills a woman during a botched bank holdup, Rideau uses his years in solitary confinement on death row to confront his own crime and educate himself about the broader world that has banished him. Then, as editor of The Angolite, he uses his newfound knowledge on behalf of others, forging what would become not only the best prison newspaper in America, but a model for journalists everywhere. Rather than succumbing to bitterness and hatred – or slavishly siding with prison officials to better his own chances for release – Rideau turns the paper into a crusading voice for fairness and justice. He takes readers deep inside the American penal system, repeatedly exposing its brutality, racial bias and corruption through honest and determined reporting. At the same time, he uses the tale of his own case – one fraught with the racial politics of the Deep South – to lay bare the separate and unequal legal system that has outlasted Jim Crow.

For his reporting alone, Rideau has made a critical and lasting contribution to our understanding of a prison system that long ago gave up on the notion of rehabilitation. But his memoir goes far beyond the limitations of journalism. He brings to his story a deep devotion to the power of literature, drawing on traditions as diverse as St. Augustine and Frederick Douglass to craft a dramatic and moving tale that is both deeply felt and richly observed. In refusing to be cast as a cold-blooded murderer, Rideau never presents himself as a saint – only as a man who, with all his flaws, manages to come through the trials of life, including those he has inflicted on himself and others, and achieve something beyond his personal freedom, something rare and wondrous: true salvation.

Excerpt

A heaviness settled on me, 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 by ambitions 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 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.

-Eric Bates, 2011 finalist judge
Executive Editor, Rolling Stone


2011 Nonfiction Winner


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(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Wilbert Rideau
In the Place of Justice

Wilbert Rideau spent forty-four years in the Louisiana prison system before winning a new trial and his freedom. He pioneered a free press behind bars in 1976 when he became editor of The Angolite, a prison newsmagazine that during his tenure was nominated seven times for a National Magazine Award.

In 1979, he became the first prisoner ever to win the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award; the following year he received journalism's prestigious George Polk Award. While in prison, he was a correspondent for National Public Radio's Fresh Air; co-produced and narrated a radio documentary, "Tossing Away the Keys," for NPR's All Things Considered; co-produced and narrated "In for Life" for ABC-TV's Day One; provided the story and guidance for the television documentary Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James, for which he received the Louisiana Bar Association's highest award for Overall Excellence in Journalism; co-directed the Academy Award-nominated film The Farm: Angola U.S.A., which earned him a Tree of Life Award from Friends of the Black Oscar Nominees.

Since his release from prison in 2005, he has received the Human Rights Award from the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Champion of Justice Award from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Since 2007 he has been a Soros Fellow and has worked as a consultant with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel project to improve communications between defense teams and their clients.

He now lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Linda.

* * *

On what the Dayton Literary Peace Prize means to me:

"I am humbled to have been awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for my memoir. To be put in the same company as the incredibly accomplished finalists for this award is itself astonishing. No one is more mindful than I am of the long journey I traveled to become an advocate for peace, and to have my writing recognized as serving that end is the ultimate honor. I will strive to be worthy of it."

—Wilbert Rideau                        

On writing for peace:

"I am a witness for the power of the written word. I know first-hand that reading is transformative. I know that books can inspire people to be better than they are, to aim higher than they thought they could ever go, to create opportunity where none was apparent, to find hope in the bleakest of circumstances, and to discover their own humanity. I believe that the greatest satisfaction any writer can have is to make a difference for good in his world. If my memoir can help one person find a more peaceable path through life, I will consider it a success."

—Wilbert Rideau                        


 
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