Friday, May 21, 2010

Angola and the clerk

Wilbert Rideau was in town last week. He spent 44 years in Angola for the murder of Julie Ferguson, which he has never denied. Angola is generally acknowledged to be the worst prison in the USA, and of the 44 years he spent there, 12 were on death row. Wilbert has been in prison so long that his death penalty was overturned when the US initially banned capital punishment in the 1970s, and he was given a life sentence instead. He had two re-trials, both also with all-white, all-male juries, but it wasn't until a final trial in 2005 that his sentence was commuted to manslaughter. He was given 21 years, and as he had already served 44, he walked free.

Whatever you think about Wilbert Rideau's crime and the fact that his conviction was overturned, he has a perspective that's pretty unique. He's now heavily involved with capital defence teams who are trying to convince their clients to support a plea bargain - in other words, to accept life without parole in exchange for the state not pushing for death. But if you know that you are never going to leave the confines of the likes of Angola, that must be an extremely tough option.

In the same week, I met a records clerk who also had links to the prison. She first got talking when she pointed out to everyone in the room that I have a freaky way of writing. But she ended up telling me that her father was one of the youngest men to ever go to Angola. He was in for 25 years, and she remembers being searched by guards as a five year old when she went to visit him with her grandmother. On his release, her father lasted only a few months before he was back inside, and she's convinced he was institutionalised. Finally, he overdosed on heroin.

Is this the ultimate catch 22? No one wants to stay in, but it's also incredibly difficult to survive when you're out.

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