Wilbert Rideau spent 44 years in one of the country’s most infamous prisons, Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary. While in prison, he pursued reform, co-producing a documentary, “Tossing Away the Keys,” for NPR’s All Things Considered, and co-directing the Academy Award-nominated film “The Farm: Angola, USA”. In the excerpt from his book, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, Rideau, a past Zócalo guest, recalls spending time in solitary confinement.
It’s late, and raining. The buildings before me have been abandoned. Life has drained from the traffic arteries below. The wet pavement of empty Lake Charles streets and parking lots doubles the glare of street lamps and neon signs, intensifying the darkness.
It’s quiet. Profoundly so. Rain whispers against the open window a few feet away. The only other thing you can hear is your own heart, thumping. I’ve known men who could not stand this silence, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. I scratch a fingernail on one of the bars, to reassure myself I haven’t gone deaf. I’ve stood here many nights staring out my second- floor window at the same scene below, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . after year. Except for the rain, it never changes.
I came from that world, was once a part of it. But it’s strange to me now, like a foreign country I’ve only read about. I feel no love, no hate. What lies outside that window represents all of my soul’s yearnings: freedom, joy, home, love, friendship, satisfaction, peace, happiness. But I feel nothing as I look. To me it is inanimate, like a picture on a wall. I’m barred from that world and old memories no longer bridge the gap. I can’t relate to that world, any more than I can imagine what it would feel like to walk down one of those streets, the rain in my face. It’s been too long.
I turn my attention to squashing my cigarette butt in the ashtray, then look around my cell. 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.
My eyes return to the open window across the catwalk outside the bars. A block away, twin lights appear as a car cautiously finds its way down the rain- slicked street. A gust of wind whips at me, ice on its lash. I look at my gray, jail- issued coveralls hanging on the wall hook. I should put them on to be warmer, but I don’t. After what I’ve been through, why should I cringe before a simple thing like cold? Strength and the spirit of contest surge through me. This is a challenge, and knowing that the cold cannot defeat me gives me pride. I remain in my T- shirt and shorts, unyielding, feeling strong and powerful. That’s what I’ve been reduced to.
It’s hard to believe that I once experienced a life in that world outside my window. Would I even be able to recognize the neighborhood I grew up in? Are kids playing hooky still shooting craps on those old tombs? Is Old Man Martello still peddling cigarettes three for a nickel to underage smokers? I wonder, but there’s no one to ask. Everyone but my mother has abandoned me.
I turn from the window and walk slowly toward the heavy steel door. I’m restless again. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. Walk back. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . stop. I reach for the pack of cigarettes. Light one. Puff deeply. Fan out the match, flip it out into the catwalk. I exhale the smoke, looking idly out the window, thinking of nothing, then turn lazily toward the center of my cell.
Suddenly, adrenaline is coursing through me. I freeze, like a feral cat who spots a stray dog. It’s the walls! They’re closer! They’re moving in on me, closing up the tomb. Panic is suffocating me. This is what they want; they want to kill me. Somehow, I will my muscles to relax, and my mind follows. The tension dissipates. It’s just my imagination. Steel walls don’t move. Shit, no. I should know that better than anyone. Ridiculous. I just need something to do, that’s all. But what? I look around the cell, wondering what to do. I can read, walk, shower again, or think. And I’m tired of reading, so . . .
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.
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . turn. I wonder what time it is. It doesn’t matter, except knowing the time allows me to mark the progress of the night. Breakfast shouldn’t be too far off. Then lunch. Then supper. I look forward to mealtime. The food tastes awful, but I always try to eat it because I have to guard my health. Next to insanity, sickness is most to be feared in solitary, where medical help is hard to come by.
I stop at the bars, grind out my cigarette, look out the window. The rain is falling a little harder. There ought to be something I can do. Turning, I see my bunk. That’s it. I drop into it, lie down. The mattress makes little difference; I’m lying on steel. I close my eyes and let my mind roam freely in search of distraction. I reject thoughts and images of past experiences as they move across the screen of my mind. Good memories are excellent distractions from this grim reality, but I possess very few of them and can’t conjure one up tonight. Restless, I get back up, pace the floor for a while, then go to the steel rail that connects the two steel walls of the shower. I heft myself up, over and over, until I am in a sweat. Chin-ups have made my arms almost as strong as the steel bars that hold me. I move to the sink and push the button for some water.
As I drink, I see a black man peering at me from the polished- steel mirror over my sink. I put down my cup and carefully remove my handcrafted covering from the light fixture. The room is now flooded with light. I take a long, scrutinizing look at this fellow as he does the same to me. There’s a weary slump to his shoulders. Deep furrows are etched across the brown forehead, and small wrinkles accentuate the subtle desperation in his dark eyes. Suffering is what I see in his eyes. I don’t like that. If I can see it, others can also. On second thought, maybe they can’t. I care, so I’m looking for it; but they barely even see me, much less my suffering. No, they won’t see it. Satisfied, I replace the cover on the light fixture and throw the cell into twilight darkness again. It’s a twilight of my own choosing, fashioned with a razor blade and cardboard- a snug-fitting cover to keep the glare of reality at bay. “Mankind cannot stand too much reality,” as T. S. Eliot wrote.
Excerpted from In the Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau Copyright © 2010 by Wilbert Rideau. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
*Photo above of solitary confinement cells courtesy DelosJ.