For over 25 years, Wilbert Rideau was a reporter and editor for The Angolite, the prison newspaper of the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola. He and his staff of fellow inmates were given an unfettered access to investigate and report that exceeds most major media outlets. Rideau describes his life and career reporting from behind bars.
BOB GARFIELD: America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and yet, what we know about prison life comes from TV and movies, outsiders doing exposes or interested parties using prisoners as signifiers of this or that. We rarely, if ever, hear from a prisoner. Until his release five years ago, Wilbert Rideau was jailed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola or The Farm, the largest maximum security prison in the United States. He was there for almost 50 years, convicted first of murder and released after serving a full term for what was eventually lessened to manslaughter. He also was, for 25 of those years, a reporter and eventually editor of The Angolite, a truly singular prison publication. He’s written a memoir of his time as a prison journalist. It’s titled, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. Wilbert, welcome to the show.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with why you were in prison. You took hostages during an armed robbery in 1961 and killed one of them, a woman named Julia Ferguson, when she tried to escape. You've never denied that crime, and yet, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. What were the circumstances?
WILBERT RIDEAU: I did - kill the lady, and that’s something I wish I could undo. I'll forever wish I hadn't done it. The Supreme Court declared my first trial a kangaroo court. I had absolutely no defense. The next two trials were pretty much the same, until finally the fourth trial, a jury acquitted me of the murder and found me guilty of manslaughter. And since I'd served twice the amount of time, they freed me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you were on Death Row for more than a decade. Tell me about your days there.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, I was in a six-by-eight-foot cell, alone. There’s nothing to do. They would let me out twice a week for 15 minutes to take a shower. And I suspect the worst company you will ever want in life is yourself. You pace the floor. You do exercises. But you have to do something for your mind, so you begin reading. And that’s the way I managed to survive that type of isolation, because man is a social creature. He’s not meant to live alone. I learned empathy through reading. It caused me to understand the damage that I had done to Julia Ferguson and even society.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you were there for more than ten years, but eventually found your way into the general population. And early on, you wanted to take some of your newfound literary thinking and, and work for the prison publication. Tell me what happened.
WILBERT RIDEAU: They refused. The prison paper, the jobs were officially reserved for white prisoners. The civil rights movement hadn't reached the prison yet.
BOB GARFIELD: This was in the early '70s.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Right. The administration was all white, and everything was defined by race. So I ended up sweeping floors. I recall reading in a newspaper one of the prison officials explaining the lack of blacks on the prison paper as being due to an inability to find blacks who could write. So I created an underground magazine. After a couple of issues, the administration put me out of business, and then I appealed to a chain of black weeklies in Louisiana, Mississippi and asked them if they'd like for me to write a weekly column on prison called The Jungle, and they said, sure. Finally the warden called me in one day in 1975 – he was getting ready to leave – and he assigned me to The Angolite. And he told me, it’s yours.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, before we get to The Angolite, tell me about Lifer, all two issues of it, and tell me about your column, The Jungle. What was the content?
WILBERT RIDEAU: You have to understand when I entered the general population it was really a jungle. It was dog eat dog and the biggest son of a bitch wins. Then the weak perished or served as slaves. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this, and I just knew the larger society didn't know what was going on. And if they knew, maybe they would straighten up all of this and reform the prison. Hey, since I could write, I was sort of duty bound. I, I had to do this. I had to tell the world.
BOB GARFIELD: We've gotten to The Angolite now. This was an exiting warden’s gesture to you. He said, all right, come join the prison magazine. Tell me about that experience.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, he literally gave me the newsletter at the time. I made it a magazine later. But the new warden who came in, C. Paul Phelps, he thought that a free press with investigatory powers and the freedom to print the truth as a journalist sees it, he thought that that could make a difference. And, as a result, we became the first and only uncensored prison publication in United States history.
BOB GARFIELD: Was he interested in this kind of reporting for the benefit of those inside the walls of the institution or was he also interested in it for the outside audiences, like the legislature, and so forth, that mattered to him?
WILBERT RIDEAU: His interest was strictly the inside. His feeling was that most of the problems between prisoners and staff were generated by misconceptions of each other. It was a us-against-them world. And he made himself the publisher, and his orders to all staff was that as long as I was asking about the job you’re doing, you had to provide the information, as long as it wasn't confidential, high-security matters. And, like he often said, there wasn't that much. [LAUGHS] Anything except personal files of inmates and personnel, they had to give it to us.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That is an extraordinary amount of access in any institution. Were you aware what kind of field of clover [LAUGHS] that you were operating in journalistically?
WILBERT RIDEAU: Yeah, initially very dangerous, because one part of my readership controlled every single day and thing I needed in life, whereas the other side of my readership, they're not given to letters to editors. If they didn't want me to wake up in the morning, I wouldn't. But we were critical of guards, we were critical of prisoners, too. And once people knew we were credible, once people knew they could trust us, once people knew we were going to be fair, they all took it on the chin.
BOB GARFIELD: Probably the most terrifying, eye-opening work you did was on the subject of sexual slavery. Inside, men are property of other prisoners.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Yes. You hear late-night comedians joking about it, but it was a deadly serious matter in prison. Let me say this: The first thing I started writing about is not having enough toilet tissue in the prison and not having enough soap in a place that made soap. It’s the little everyday problems we encountered. That’s what I started writing about. The sexual thing, I had never seen this. It was part of the security process. Anything that would divide prisoners, security wanted. You have to understand that up until that time, corrections officials had always depicted sexual violence as something that was an accident of prison or something that individuals did to each other because they were criminals, and it never had anything to do with the administration. And what I showed was that it had a lot to do with the administration. It had to do with the way they operated their prisons. I interviewed the corrections officials in Louisiana. I interviewed the wardens, as well as others, and they all told me the truth.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, apart from creating a bunch of unease in the administration and in cellblocks, tell me what effect it had in uh, remedying the underlying conditions.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, it was like every other aspect of prison that we dealt with in the magazine. It educated everybody involved about the reality of what they were doing. It persuaded the authorities to stop locking up gay inmates as the cause of it, because they were quite often the victims. And once everybody understood how it operated, it wasn't too long before sexual violence, while it didn't end – I mean, it'll probably never end – but it became rare for that type of thing to happen in Angola.
BOB GARFIELD: So what was the last ten years like?
WILBERT RIDEAU: In 1995, a new warden took over, and he gradually began re-imposing censorship. His thing was not to put us out of business. The objective was public relations. And the one thing that prison authorities have never been afraid of is the media going in and finding out anything, because a journalist from free society can walk through prison, see everything and don't know what you’re looking at. And you don't know the right questions to ask, because it’s a totally different world. The people who know the prison world the best are the inmates and the employees, which is why once you censor them, you’re home free.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Wilbert. Thank you very, very much.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Wilbert Rideau is the author of In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance.
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