Louisiana during the 1960s was a bad time and place for a black man to be charged with killing a white woman and make it to trial alive, let alone survive more than four decades in prison.
Poor decisions by Wilbert Rideau cost bank employee Julia Ferguson her life. Rideau said he killed her in a panicked state, and was terrified as police hauled him off to jail.
“I was living the nightmare that haunted blacks in the Deep South—death by the mob, a dreaded heirloom handed down through the generations,” writes Rideau, who recently visited San Quentin.
In the Place of Justice is the memoir of a man’s efforts to dodge the gallows, learn the tools of journalism, and ultimately help reform Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, known as the “bloodiest prison” in American.
“The world could define me as ‘criminal,’ but I did not have to live its definition of me,” writes Rideau. “I resolved that I would not let my crime be the final definition. I knew there was more to me than the worst thing I’d done. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.”
The time Rideau spent fighting for his life on Death Row paid off as he matured into a man of empathy, able to get away from the bane of “self-centeredness” and to “appreciate the humanness of others.”
Rideau established himself as a respectable journalist by striving to give a wider perspective on prison issues than typically given to the public. As editor of the prison magazine called The Angolite, he did things no other news agency could do. This reinforced his belief he could make a significant contribution to the betterment of lives of those working and living in the prison environment.
“The world could define me as ‘criminal’ but I did not have to live its definition of me”
In the Place of Justice delves into Rideau’s ups and downs as a journalist, bound by the whim of prison officials. However, he was a trusted person in times of crisis, proving to prison administrators as well as his fellow prisoners with the belief that everyone had a stake in improving the lives of the incarcerated.
Rideau was not afraid to call Warden C. Paul Phelps “the best friend I’d ever had…the big brother and even the father figure I never really had.” However, he also had to deal with wardens who censored The Angolite to point that his impact as a journalist was notably reduced.
“The biggest problem…was that no one wanted truth or objectivity. Personnel wanted only good things said about them…prisoners wanted a one-sided publication lauding inmates and criticizing guards,” Rideau writes.
Rideau said his 44-year journey was riveted with days that inch along like snails, and years that zoom past like rockets; however, he realized, “If I could adjust to the cruelties of imprisonment, I can adjust to anything.”
Even while fighting for his freedom, Rideau stayed active in his local community, assisting in the ouster of an ineffectual school board superintendent, and advising potential politicians in their campaigns.
During the fourth and final trial, his soon-to-be wife, Linda LaBranche, worked incessantly to present the truth of the exact circumstances of which Julia Ferguson was killed, which was relevant to whether he would spend the rest of his life imprisoned or set free.
After the truth was told Rideau writes, “I wake up in heaven every day.”