Many readers of Solitary Watch will already know something about the remarkable life of Wilbert Rideau: In 1961, at the age of 19, he was convicted of murder by an all-white, all-male jury, after killing a bank teller in the aftermath of a botched robbery. Ten years later, his death sentence was commuted to life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Rideau became editor of 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. (For an example of his work, read “Why Prisons Don’t Work,” published by Time in 1994.) He won journalism awards, published a book called Life Sentences, and collaborated on a film about Angola, The Farm. He was finally retried, convicted of manslaughter, and released on time served in 2005, after 44 years in prison.
Rideau’s story is receiving renewed attention because of his new memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. (Rideau talks about the book in a recent interview with Mother Jones, and another on public radio’s “Fresh Air.”) The excerpt that’s been made public by the publisher is a powerful chapter called “Solitary.” Rideau spent more than three years in solitary confinement, as well as eight more in a one-man cell on death row. What follows is a small sample, but you can read the full chapter here (and buy the book here).
This is my reality. Solitude. Four walls, graygreen, drab, and foreboding. Three of steel and one of bars, held together by 358 rivets. Seven feet wide, nine feet long. About the size of an average bathroom or— and my mind leaps at this— the size of four tombs, only taller. I, the living dead, have need of a few essentials that the physically dead no longer require— commode, shower, face bowl, bunk. A sleazy old mattress, worn to thinness. On the floor in a corner, a cardboard box that contains all my worldly possessions—a writing tablet, a pen, and two changes of underwear. The mattress, the box, and I are the only things not bolted down, except the cockroaches that come and go from the drain in the floor and scurry around in the shower. This is my life, every minute of the year. I’m buried alive. But I’m the only person for whom that fact has meaning, who feels it, so it’s immaterial…
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. One . . . two . . . three . . . It’s not right to make a man live like this, alone. But I can take it. I can whip this motherfucker. I am stronger than anything they can do to me. The more they do, the stronger they make me. I actually smile. Haven’t I endured and risen above an experience that would crush most men?
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. Yeah, I’ve seen men broken, destroyed by solitary. Some have come to fear every shadow. Others have committed suicide. Some men would do anything to escape this cell. Some feigned insanity so they could go to a mental institution. Even more cut themselves, over and over, until the Man, fearing a suicide on his watch, moved them out of solitary. Others stayed doped up, whenever they could get the dope. Engaging in such tricks, though, is beneath my dignity; it’s unmanly. I am stronger than the punishment. The only way to beat it, to rise above it, is to regard the punishment as a challenge and see my ability to endure it while others cannot as a victory. Whenever another man falls under the pressure, it’s a triumph for me. Callous, some would call me. A man falls, broken, insane, or dead, and I feel nothing except triumph. But this is no place for pity— not for the next man, nor for myself. It would break me. The hard truth about solitary is that each man must struggle and suffer alone.