Louisiana’s Eternal Injustice System

January 3, 2017

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice

I’m ashamed to say I had not read Wilbert Rideau’s searing “In the Place of Justice,” until this past holiday season. The book, which chronicles his tortuous path from murder to rehabilitation to freedom, is as relevant today in describing Louisiana’s justice system as it was when it was published in 2010 or as it would have been had Rideau written it a generation ago.

Rideau spent 44 years in the state’s prisons and jails after killing a woman during a botched robbery attempt in 1961. His trial was patently unfair, from the way police and prosecutors (and the media) manipulated pretrial publicity to the racially discriminatory way in which the jury was selected to the cavalier way in which Rideau’s appellate judges reviewed his case through the decades as he worked his way off and on the state’s death row. That he was guilty of a terrible crime makes the system’s flaws no less severe.

The bulk of the book focuses on Rideau’s decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, then and now one of the nation’s most notorious prisons. There is the theme of how he became the most influential prison journalist in American history. There is the theme of the racism and corruption that permeated the place he called home all those years. There is the story of how local politics conspired to keep him in custody long after he should have been paroled. But there is also the theme of compassion and grace that Rideau encountered from the lowliest inmates to the highest officials.

And when you read it all, you realize how much of what we are talking about today when we talk about “justice reform” was discussed and debated and fought over a generation ago by advocates and activists. You appreciate how little progress has been made in ensuring that justice in Louisiana is color blind. You understand that the appalling conditions of confinement that exist today in prisons and jails there (and elsewhere) have existed for decades despite federal court orders and the occasional earnest politicians.

The state’s march toward the crippling mass incarceration and racial disparities it endures today wasn’t inevitable, you learn from reading Rideau’s account. Nor were the countless wrongful convictions and unjust sentences imposed on defendants, most of them black, most of them condemned to deplorable prison conditions by white judges, juries, prosecutors, and police. Nor was the creation and perpetuation of an appellate system that mocks the very notion of earnest judicial review.

Instead, as Rideau’s story reminds us, Louisiana is the worst state in the union when it comes to criminal justice because it deserves to be so. Because too few public servants over the decades have done the honorable thing, which was to do no more than their jobs in accordance with the law and the Constitution. Louisiana was a mess then, and is a mess now, because of a countless series of small decisions made by men and women in positions of power who could have done better and should have done better.

Rideau bluntly concedes at the beginning of the book that he deserved to be punished for what he did that night in Lake Charles. And you can chart the arc of his rehabilitation from his acceptance of his own guilt, his own responsibility for the bad choices he made as an uneducated young man. But what of all those cops and prosecutors and judges and prison officials he met along the way who made their own poor choices that deprived Rideau and his fellow inmates of their rights and their dignity? Did any of these people, acting under color of law, ever come to their own reckoning?

We will never know for sure. But what we do know is that 50 years after Wilbert Rideau first found his way into a Louisiana jail too many men and women in confinement there continue to live in deplorable conditions. Too many police and prosecutors continue to engage in misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions. Too many judges and juries render their verdicts based on the color of the defendant’s skin and too many appellate judges take the easy path and rubber-stamp convictions.

There are too many sentences that have no logical connection to the crimes to which they are based. There are too many legislative sessions in which accountability for prison reform is passed around and then largely ignored. Rideau wrote his book a decade ago and on every page it made me think of the famous quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Louisiana’s terrible history of criminal injustice is not even past. And there is little reason to think it will be another half century from now.

(Photo: ThinkStock)