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Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison

Apr 26, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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In 1961, Wilbert Rideau shot a bank teller named Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. He was convicted by an all-white, all-male jury of murder and sentenced to die.

Rideau lived on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary — better known as Angola — from the time he was 19 to the time he was 31. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty as it was then practiced, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

At the time, Angola was very much a segregated prison. When Rideau attempted to join the staff of the prison magazine,The Angolite, he was rejected. Rideau then started an all-black magazine in the prison called The Lifer, publishing investigative reports on prison life. In 1975, after mandatory desegregation rules were put into place, Rideau was placed in charge of The Angolite.

For 25 years, Rideau reported on events that were taking place within Angola's walls — covering topics such as the mishandling of AIDS funds for prisoners, the brutality of electrocutions and the pervasive sexual violence inside the prison. During Rideau's years as editor,The Angolite won the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award — and Rideau became a correspondent for Fresh Air, reporting on what it was like to live in solitary confinement and how prisoners feared for their safety on a daily basis.

Rideau always acknowledged his victims and took full responsibility for his crime. Yet by the mid-'90s, most of the murder convicts sent to Louisiana's prisons around the same time as Rideau had been pardoned — including some who had committed similar crimes — while Rideau remained incarcerated. A 20/20 investigation revealed that Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards had said that he would never release Rideau, despite believing that Rideau had been fully rehabilitated.

In 2000, Rideau's original murder conviction was overturned because of racial discrimination in a previous trial's grand jury process. He was tried again, found guilty of manslaughter and re-sentenced to 21 years. Because Rideau had already served 44 years, he was freed.

In a new memoir, In the Place of Justice, Rideau describes his years in incarceration in great detail, including how he became rehabilitated — and how he practiced serious journalism within the prison walls. He tells Terry Gross that when he started writing for The Angolite in 1975, he had no way of knowing how powerful his magazine would become outside the prison's walls.

"I didn't know that when I started out. What I really wanted to do was tell," he says. "I just couldn't believe that society would accept the barbarity, the horrible things that were going on. And I knew I could write. And I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell society, to tell the public what's going on, to let them know and to give them a better understanding about criminals, about crime, about prisons. ... I knew I couldn't make things right, but I can give something back. I can contribute something to society and that's the way it was born."

Rideau wrote about what was then called "the bloodiest prison in the nation" for more than 25 years, including an article on sexual violence that received the George Polk Award.

"There was violence literally every day," he says. "You had people getting killed, gang wars. You had drug traffickers rampant. You had sexual violence and enslavement of prisoners. Guys would rape you and that was a process that redefined you, not as a male but as a female and also as property. Whoever raped you owned you, and you had to serve him as long as you were in prison, unless he gave you away or you were sold."

Though Rideau was never attacked, he says he spent his years in prison on "high alert" while reporting on the conditions within Angola. Today, he works as a consultant and as a writer and lives with his girlfriend, who he met while he was in prison.

And he says prison — where he discovered reading and writing — saved him.

"I lived like a reporter and had a mission in life," he says. "And despite everything else, it gave my life meaning, despite the prison context."

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