Picks and Pans Review: Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars

UPDATED 09/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

Edited by Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg

These two dozen essays about living behind bars are prison writing at its best, honest and unsentimental with each evoking a different dimension of the inmate experience. Written by prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the articles all originally appeared in the Angolite, the prison's hard-hitting bimonthly newsmagazine.

Most of the essays were penned by either Rideau, now in his 32nd year of a life sentence on a murder rap, or Wikberg, who was recently paroled after serving 23 years, also for murder. Rideau's "Dying in Prison" explores the loneliness and fear that haunt prisoners who are doomed to perish among strangers. "There is no warmth, beauty, or meaning, no last pleasures, touches, joys, words," he writes. "You suffer alone and you die alone, feeding the fear and misery of those who must watch you die." Wikberg's "The Horror Show" forcefully counters the popular notion that those who die by electrocution experience little actual pain. The evidence of massive burning presented here—grisly pictures included—helped persuade Louisiana legislators to abandon the electric chair in 1991 in favor of lethal injection for death penalty cases. Most jolting is Rideau's "The Sexual Jungle," a graphic description of the homosexual culture spawned by prison life.

Rideau says the purpose of publishing the book is to "foster a better understanding among the public" about how the criminal justice system works. If this powerful book gets the readership it deserves, he and Wikberg will succeed. (Times Books, $15)

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