Wilbert Rideau: In the Place of Justice

By Shyamalie Satkunanandan

Wilbert Rideau’s decision to rob a bank ended in the hostage taking of three employees and the death of a white female bank teller.

Amid lynch mobs baying for blood, an all-white jury and a defence team comprised of two real estate lawyers the then 19-year-old was sentenced to death in 1961 in what was later described by the Supreme Court as a “kangaroo court”.

Rideau spent the next 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, escaping state execution twice and surviving life in the notorious prison, before having his conviction reduced to manslaughter and released in 2005.

Speaking to the Guardian’s Afua Hirsch at the Frontline Club Rideau said the key to his transformation – from what he freely admitted as a dangerous person who should have been locked up long before his crime, to a model prisoner, champion of free speech and celebrated journalist, editor and lecturer – was reading.

Motivated not by noble aspirations but by the “maddening monotony of living in a cube” he soon discovered other worlds beyond Angola and his own myopic upbringing.  He said:

“Reading is powerful. It’s a continuing education process – it will change you without even knowing it.”

He also came to understand the gravity of his crime:

“Reading taught me empathy. I realised that other people have dreams, pain, frustrations and ambitions.  They are life forces and they hurt just like I hurt and that’s when I realised the enormity of what I had done."

After learning about the transformations of Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi and the entirety of Australia (a former English penal colony) Rideau began to believe that he too could redeem himself – that there was hope. Given his limited circumstances, Rideau set upon using his words to help others understand the driving forces behind criminality.

As a writer and editor of prison newspaper The Angolite, Rideau was given unprecedented freedom of expression by the then Governor, Paul Phelps:

“The prison world at Angola was so horrific; he thought why are we hiding this? Maybe the public would be moved to change things.  On the magazine he lifted censorship and gave me the power to investigate, photograph and substantiate whatever I wrote as long as I obeyed the ethics of journalism.”

The Angolite, whose journalistic rights were upheld by a federal court, became the voice of prisoners, exploring in-depth their lives and the roots of crime – namely poverty, social pressures, desperation and frustration. 

By cutting through the ignorance and misconceptions of prison life he provoked discourse and prompted changes in issues such as sexual violence among prisoners, the electric chair, dire living conditions and poor health care.

Referring to the current economic climate Rideau voiced his concerns about its effect on the social problems that lead to crime:

“They’re cutting the budgets of education, welfare, healthcare, programs that are designed to improve people and address the problem you’re talking about.  But prison goes on – they’re locking them up and throwing away the key just as quickly.”

He believes that freedom of expression and the public’s right to know has become increasingly crucial because now “public leads – politicians follow the public, they don’t lead anymore”.