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Arts & Culture

Behind Bars, Beyond Words: A Look Inside Louisiana’s Prisons

Unlike so many who flock to New Orleans for Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras and because of its breezy, insouciant airs decide to move here, I came to the city by different means. I came because of prison.

One of the more unusual aspects of my resume is that I once spent a summer living in a Winnebago and traveling around the nation to women’s prisons. The project screened a documentary, 900 Women, to penal institutions around the country and then conducted workshops with the inmates. On the tour, we stopped in New Orleans for a week and held free community screenings of the film that were followed by discussions about the issues surrounding the American penal system.

Louisiana’s prisons are some of the toughest in the nation, and the advocates on both sides of the issues of rehabilitation, victim’s rights, and recidivism hold fierce opinions about what is the best way to deal with crime. We held our New Orleans screening at Tulane, and presented a panel with members of the Restorative Justice movement, with criminal lawyers, and pro-gun, pro-prison advocates. It was fascinating, and the panoply of opinions presented revealed how richly textured the city is.

Wilbert Rideau - Author of "In Place of Justice" and Angola death row inmate - Louisiana Prisons
Wilbert Rideau, author of "In Place of Justice" and former death-row inmate at Angola Prison

While the average citizen probably won’t be sauntering through too many sallyports, readers can gain perspective with two books about Louisiana’s prisons told from those kept inside.

In his new memoir, In Place of Justice (Knopf), former death-row inmate, Wilbert Rideau uses the journalism skills he developed while incarcerated to create a vivid, searing portrait of life on Angola’s oderose farm. Rideau was sent to Angola at the age of 19 for murdering a woman during a robbery attempt and served a 44 year sentence within the walls. His memoir describes the harrowing circumstances within the prison and explores his own crime and his path toward redemption.

In his memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (William Morrow), Neil White describes his time spent incarcerated in Carville, LA. White spent time in a federal prison there that also serves as one of the last facilities in America for the treatment of leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease). White paints a portrait of his time spent with his fellow prisoners, and with the patients who dealt with an alienation of a different kind.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White - Louisiana Prisons
Author Neil White describes his incarceration in Carville, LA in "In the Sanctuary of Outcasts"

After hearing of White and Rideau’s journey through the penal system, many will come away moved. For those looking to assist in the plight of the incarcerated, New Orleans has many opportunities to help, including Books 2 Prisoners and Resurrection After Exoneration.  Resurrection After Exoneration (RAE) is an organization founded by John Thompson, a Louisianan who spent 18 years in prison for a crime it was later found he did not commit.  Thompson started RAE to assist others in the fight to clear their names and to help with the difficult transition after being released.

On June 19th, RAE will hold Juneteenth,  a fundraiser at the Angela King Gallery, featuring Desire Street author, Jed Horne, along with music by The Leroy Jones Jazz Trio, an art and silent auction and more.

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