Ruination and Redemption: The Complicated History of Wilbert Rideau

by Ann Barry Burrows

Nineteen-year-old Wilbert Rideau watched the street from the barred window of his jail cell, supremely disconnected from his mother and little brother, from the justice system, from the community outside, from everyone. Rideau makes this moment palpable in his 2010 memoir published in his late 60s, after a life spent incarcerated. In the Place of Justice recounts how the teen had a few books stashed under his bunk, the first he’d ever read through to the end, and that he had a notebook. He was in solitary confinement on death row in Charles City, Louisiana. He was guilty of murder during a bank robbery in 1961. He expected to die. The power of his memoir lies in the details of despair, of reprieve from a death sentence, and of years spend behind bars in pursuit of journalistic excellence and its rewards.

Rideau found a redemption he does not claim to deserve in 2005, when he was freed from prison. He sent a recast version of his old notes to a publisher, trying to connect in the best way he knew, trying to find the life he had thrown away. Last October, amid book tours and consulting work for attorneys, Rideau stopped at the Old Dominion University Literary Festival in Virginia. People streamed in from outside, many of them as young as he had been when he was first sent to prison, and, after his reading, they lined up by the dozens at the book signing. As they placed his words back into his hands, their voices were tinged with desperation. A connection had been made, but they needed more. This is what he heard:

“Just write something for my son, tell him to hang in there and be good.”

“Tell my boyfriend he can do it.”

“In my family everyone goes to jail unless they join the military. I chose to be a Navy SEAL.”

He was told the bookstore sold about seventy copies that day — all they had in stock. Rideau wished each buyer well and answered questions modestly. Interviewed later for the Barely South Review, he said, “The girlfriend of an inmate was waiting for me to write something to him, so I wrote, ‘Get your shit together.’ Then I added, ‘You can do it.’”

From the perspective of craft, a review of Rideau’s book has to include the atmosphere into which a guilty ex-con must speak about his life. Because of the extensive history of his case, dating back to the segregated south, and of his work as a prison journalist, Rideau was already famous in criminal justice and journalism circles. Random House released his book in the spring of last year, when it received acclaim by the New York Times, National Public Radio, CBS Morning News and magazines such as Vanity Fair and Mother Jones. He is admired for his numerous awards as editor of the prison newspaper,The Angolite, as well as his collaboration on a 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary film, “The Farm,” about life at the notoriously violent Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana. Yet Rideau is also vilified. Victim advocacy groups challenged his clemency procedures and fought against his release. He confessed his crime to a television reporter twenty years ago, and the film circulates on YouTube. A web site, realstory.com, posts anti-Rideau fire fanned by a fellow inmate and journalist, Billy Sinclair, who has written his own memoir and another book. Most notable are cries for Rideau’s victims in the bank he robbed, a teller and manager left injured and horrified, and another teller, Julia Ferguson, killed. Their families continue to wish Rideau remained incarcerated for his crimes.

So, as a free man and writer, Rideau talked about undertaking the task of turning the journalistic lens on himself. He discussed the difficult, hardly solvable problem of satisfying everyone with his ruminations on crime and punishment. In the end he could only deliver what he promised, on the cover of his book jacket: a story. He claims it is his story: “a story of punishment and deliverance.”

Rideau does not glorify his crime in the book. He seeks both to purge it, hoping to write of it no more, and to remain faithful to its consequences. His first chapter is titled, “Ruination.” His tone is stark and reportorial as he recreates the scene, but personal, too, as he describes an interior panic. The chapter details his childhood, culminating in the day he bought a gun and robbed a bank, intending to leave town. The bank manager informed police who were on their way. Rideau ordered them into a car but got lost heading out of town with them. It was raining and dark when they stopped at a field.

Suddenly, the younger woman was bolting from the car. “Stop the car!” I yelled, grabbing at the door handle and springing out. I slipped, losing my footing. The woman ran across the road. Scrambling to break my fall, I leaned against the trunk of the car. “Stop or I’ll shoot,” I yelled. Hickman, now out of the car, lunged toward me and the pistol. It went off, and he ran. I continued firing – five more shots in rapid succession – until the gun emptied. Both women fell. “Mr. Hickman!” I called, running a couple of steps after him, stopping as I realized I could not see him, then spinning around in time to see the older woman start to rise. I grabbed the knife, stabbed her, and ran to the car where I stood, shaking violently and gasping for breath. I couldn’t see anything in the pitch-black night. It was deathly quiet. Oh, God, what have I done? I got into the car and took a deep, ragged breath. “Oh, God,” I murmured, “help me – please.” I took off down the gravel lane. I needed to distance myself from this horrible place, this nightmare. (23)

At his book signing, he was asked how he managed – when so many try and fail – to endure punishment and make up for his crime, to keep free over the years from more crime and violence in prison, and to actually better himself and achieve worthwhile goals. The crowd waited in silent anticipation of his answer. Rideau spoke with customary slowness, pausing between short phrases, “I have a mission in life. Now I know I can never do it, but when I go, you know, as we all go, to meet my maker, on judgment day, I want to be able to say, ‘I tried.’”

Rideau told this interviewer that he hoped to recount his crime just this once, in the book. He said the hardest section of the book to write was the section about his sins. “I struggled with how to tell it in an honest way. Who wants to be honest about the worst thing they have ever done?” The titles of his chapters recount his mental progress through the ordeal that he himself began, and the justice that carried him on a path that included prejudice, criminality, censorship, disappointment and even danger. It took him from death row, where he remorsefully and despairingly contemplated suicide, and from solitary confinement, where he stared into the chasm of madness. The thrust of the book is to give a portrait of a life that was criminal, and then rehabilitated, a life that was thrown away, and then given another chance. The chapter titles tell of his inward condition during the journey: Ruination, Tribulation, Solitary, The Jungle, Mentor, Crackdown, Truth Behind Bars, Disillusion, Soldiering On, Hope, Censorship, Behind Enemy Lines, Deliverance, and Heaven. “I did this, mainly, to signal to the reader what a given passage in my life means to me, emotionally or mentally,” Rideau said. “The chronology is given in the subtitle to each chapter, but standing alone, dates mean little. I guess I could have given objectively descriptive titles to the chapters, such as “the crime,” “the trial,” “prison,” but they would not have conveyed anything about what those passages in my life meant to me.”

The first chapter ends with his account of the crime, and a later chapter is his index of what officials, attorneys and witnesses said, during his final trial, about the events of that fateful day. Rideau said he used court testimony, contemporaneous notes and published sources. He said he includes conversations that are faithful in content, if exact words are only recalled to the best of his recollection. That may not be enough for a Barnes and Noble customer who, according to comments posted online, complained about a book signing and a review “for a murderer.”

Rideau accepts questions about his new freedom graciously, and sloughs off insinuations that he thinks himself a victim of society or justice. “You are truly talking about society as an entity,” Rideau said. “People group together to form a social organization to protect everybody and hopefully promote their happiness and well-being. I just want to remind you that it is a very imperfect process. The system is as imperfect as the people who run it.” Rideau further discusses that, although the book explains he was a man of color growing up in a fatherless home in the ’40s and ’50s, and that he endured daily life in the violent Angola prison in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium, he is careful to remember how such events composed his life: “Through the years I always reminded myself that no one kidnapped me and forced me into prison.”

His is the kind of memoir open to questions about its honesty, but the flavor of a precursor is relevant. Rideau collaborated on the 1997 documentary about the prison called “The Farm: Angola, USA.” That work received an Oscar nomination and is described, along with the sequel made ten years later, “The Farm: Ten Down,” as a work by producer Jonathan Stack that “turned its non-judgmental lens on society’s most egregious offenders.” Promotional materials say the films deal with the violence of the prison, but also the essential humanity possessed by the inmates, and the possibilities in each of them for redemption.

Without saying he deserved it, Rideau said he was placed on the path of redemption by one of his prison administrators, who trusted him. To this reviewer, he said that he wanted to make C. Paul Phelps, the Angola Warden at the time, proud. “He was the first person in life I ever knew who trusted me. That’s saying a lot. It doesn’t sound like much, it doesn’t sound like a lot, but I had lived many years without having that experience. He believed in me; he expected me to be better than I was.”

Aside from offering a degree of respect, Phelps also offered the prison journalist freedom from censorship. Initially he had not been welcome on the all-white staff of The Angolite, so Rideau had begun his career writing press releases for black prison organizations, and he developed a competing magazine with a staff of black inmates called The Lifer in 1973. He also sent weekly columns to small black newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi. A previous prison administration had put him in a solitary disciplinary cell after he wrote a column criticizing the annual prison rodeo as exploiting the inmates for the amusement of outsiders, likening it to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome that used slaves for the entertainment of the masses. The Lifer was shut down for lack of funding after its third issue, but Rideau had received enough journalistic praise to win a slot on The Angolite. Under Phelps’ direction, he attended meetings with prison management and gained access to information that helped him fashion the articles that would win acclaim for The Angolite and its staff.

Rideau said his work ethic was beyond strong. He would often get impatient until reminded by the prison staff that not everyone worked 24 hours a day. He said his information gathering and articles were important because that is all he did. Indeed, he said he worked anytime day or night, often sitting at his desk past 1 a.m., or woke up at 3 a.m. and was allowed to walk from his cell to the office to work. He often called other journalists on the phone to chat. “I loved it,” Rideau said. “C. Paul encouraged the cooperation. I got to know quite a few journalists. They treated me and regarded me as a fellow journalist, not a prisoner. That was gratifying to me.”

The memoir notes that Phelps’ vision was that cooperation between prison authorities and inmates would streamline and smooth prison operations. So Rideau took his freedom from censorship and tried to use it wisely. In the chapter “Mentor,” he states:

We often talked of the need for meaningful communication between inmates and prison authorities, of the need to disseminate information about things that affected inmates. Phelps believed that the single biggest source of inmate hostility toward the administration was rooted in secrecy on how decisions were reached. . . I said The Angolite could certainly report on developments and put them in the proper context, but only if we were uncensored. ‘A censored publication has no credibility,’ I said.

‘Okay,’ said Phelps. (111)

Wardens could be strict at times, leading to limitations on his reporting, and one wanted Rideau to defuse problems before they became public. Rideau quotes another Angola Warden, Ross Maggio Jr.:

All I ask is that when you come across a legitimate problem that affects the prison, let me know about it . . . You give me a chance to solve it first, then you can write whatever you want, stating that the warden’s office either solved or didn’t solve the problem. (145)

Together with other staffers, Rideau received word that the school of journalism at Southern Illinois University had named The Angolite the nation’s only uncensored prison publication and that it had swept the American Penal Press Awards, citied for its “high quality and success in leading the way in new and responsible prison journalism.” As noted in his chapter, Truth Behind Bars, it did so in later years as well. The paper was also a finalist for the 1978 National Magazine Awards administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism – one of the highest honors in the magazine industry.

Rideau began making speaking engagements around the state, as the editorial mix grew to include stories about lifers, a prisoner’s suicide, analytical features and investigative reports. A man was freed whenThe Times-Picayune of New Orleans and other media picked up the story written by Rideau of an inmate who tended horses at a prison out-camp for thirty-three years despite the fact that lifers at that time could often win release after a decade of good behavior. The featured inmate was soon freed. Corrections Magazine ran an article on Rideau titled, “A Louisiana Inmate Leads His Magazine into the Big Leagues of Journalism.” The American Bar Association gave him its 1979 Silver Gavel Award for “outstanding contributions to public understanding of the American system of law and justice.” He was the first prisoner to receive the honor. The staff received the 1979 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award “for bringing about a deep understanding of the lives and deaths of those imprisoned.”

One of his most important achievements is noted on page 155, when in 1979 he published the story titled, “The Sexual Jungle.” Prompted initially by a request from Penthouse magazine, Rideau instead published a 28-page investigative story in The Angolite to give national perspective to the problem of power-driven, man-on-man rape in prisons. The story affected Louisiana’s corrections training programs and won Rideau the George Polk Award, which he proudly said is the gold standard for journalism. It is conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism and winners have included Edward R. Murrow and Christiane Amanpour. Rideau was allowed to travel to Washington, D.C. to receive the award in 1979, and he shared the stage with a fellow winner, Walter Cronkite.

Rideau still talks of a feeling that developed during this period, in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide suspension of the death penalty in 1972. He discusses in the book the sense of receiving something undeserved but undeniable, a “blessing.” Rideau said, “There is no other word for it,” while purposely remaining vague on his religious faith. He feels that salvation, in the religious sense, is a term used too often by convicts and forgotten when they are free men. At the time, he spoke to Phelps of a quiet and growing feeling. This discourse is presented in the book:

My success and The Angolite’s were the latest signs in what I had long since begun to feel was a charmed existence. I had twice narrowly avoided being lynched following my arrest, then had been rescued from three consecutive life sentences by three unexpected landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thrown into the most violent prison in America, I not only survived, I thrived. ‘It’s like something’s happening on a level that I don’t understand,’ I told Phelps one afternoon when he stopped by my office.

“You’re getting religion?” he asked, smiling.

“I don’t know, but at what point do I ask, what the hell’s going on? I can’t help wondering if some cosmic force or supernatural entity isn’t pushing me along a specific course in life, having saved me for some unknown purpose I’m to serve.”

“You’ve been blessed by an extraordinary amount of good fortune,” Phelps said. ‘You want to make sense of it, and you will, eventually. But the important thing to understand now is that you’re uniquely postured to make a difference in the lives of others, to do a lot of good, and to educate the public about the world of prison. That should be a personal mission with you, whether you feel a supernatural force nudging you toward it or not . . . ”

I had, indeed come to see The Angolite as my mission in life, my path to redemption. It allowed me the satisfaction of helping others, whether by educating them or solving problems. It also kept me in touch with people outside prison, normal people, so I could mitigate some of the effects of being institutionalized. The magazine gave me a measure of control over my life; I could decide what stories to pursue and set my own schedule. Every day held the promise of unpredictability and discovery – giving tours, traveling, sitting in on meetings with administrators, checking the levees that kept the Mississippi in place, researching Angola’s history, photographing the annual Angola rodeo, and talking to scholars, media, and government officials from Louisiana and elsewhere . . . to tackle the kind of difficult subjects for which the magazine would become famous: inequities in the system, lost and forgotten prisoners, the brutal realities of life behind bars. (153-154)

“What probably guided me most in writing my memoir was the spirit of my mentor, C. Paul Phelps. He was a great man, and I wanted to make him proud of me, of the faith he had in me,” Rideau said. He added that he now knows that “being a journalist is one thing, writing a book is something else. During my years as a journalist, I always strove to adhere to the profession’s standards for balance, objectivity, fairness, and truth. I rarely, if ever, included my personal opinion in what I wrote. A memoir, on the other hand – at least as I interpret it – is completely different. It’s like describing the landscape of your life – the highs, the lows, the open meadows and hidden valleys that give your life meaning and texture. You want the facts to be right, but it’s not about being objective or neutral, it’s about how your life looked and felt to you. This was very, very difficult for me because in prison you learn to mask your emotions and your feelings. It’s a defense strategy because you can’t afford to let anyone see any vulnerability, any weakness they could exploit. So after four decades of not revealing myself, it was difficult to do that in the memoir.”

Rideau had been urged by one of his “outside” associates, ABC News anchor Ted Koppel, to keep a notebook during his final trial in 2003, when, after many other attempts, he was finally released for time served. These notes were the basis of the chapter, Behind Enemy Lines, and continued into Deliverance and Heaven. “You could say those chapters were written as they were happening,” Rideau said. He placed them last in the book, for a sense of first things first. “In some sense, I took a cue from the memoir (Personal History) of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, as to how to get into my subject, going back to my parents and their story at the beginning of the book. But I’m not a literary writer.”

Even so, Rideau took over two years to craft the book. First, he had to enjoy his freedom. “I am just so happy,” Rideau said as he walked along an ODU campus sidewalk, sucking the crisp fall air into his lungs. He wore a plain beige ball cap and light jacket. His trousers were clean and pressed. “I think of my freedom all the time. To go where I want to go, do what I want to do – no system, no man telling me to go here or do that. Every day is a nice day because I’m free.” He is careful, crossing the street here in Norfolk and elsewhere, not to jaywalk. He jokes that he is happy to follow the rules. When he is not traveling, he is settled in Baton Rouge with his wife, Linda, who visited, supported and married him while he was still in prison. In person, as well as in the book, Rideau gives her great credit for aiding his case for a new trial and helping to prove the limitations of due process offered during the South’s past decades. He said he can never go back to the hate he felt in Charles City, but he arranges to meet his mother away from her home. He still maintains some prison habits, such as wanting to keep some food or snacks saved somewhere in a corner, as well as the discipline to not get into debt. “If I can’t pay for it, I don’t need it,” Rideau said. While writing, Rideau lived on grant money, consulting fees, and an advance from Random House.

Rideau initially sent in his chapter, Solitary, to win the book contract. It was written during early years of imprisonment, in solitary confinement, when Rideau the would-be journalist and author instinctively turned to time configurations in order to connect with anyone who might read his words. He paced the floor, he used up the interminable time counting the 358 metal rivets in his cell, and he wondered if the walls are closing in. After his release more than 40 years later, he said he revisited the work with a mind that was more mature, and that was fundamentally different from what it was when he first wrote words on a page. The chapter is about finding the will to save his own mind, and in it he expresses a desire for courage and determination. He also corrected in the current version what he called “a problem with adverbs.”

Also in this issue, an exerpt from Wilbert Rideau’s book:
From In the Place of Justice

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Ann Barry Burrows s a writer living in Norfolk, Virginia. Fomerly an award-winning staff writer for newspapers and magazines, such as The Virginian-Pilot and Georgia Trend, she has broadened her work to writing fiction. Semi-annually she directs health training in poor villages of Kenya and Nicaragua while helping to install clean water systems. Now an MFA student at Old Dominion University, she has published fiction in Alimentum Journal and is at work on a novel.