The Problem with Being a Prisoner is that You Have to Wade Through a River of Bullshit: An Interview with Wilbert Rideau

Event: Apr 06, 2011

Wilbert Rideau (photo: Akasha Rabut)
Wilbert Rideau (photo: Akasha Rabut)

By Nik De Dominic

I meet Wilbert Rideau at a hotel on Rampart Street, across from Armstrong Park. It is a sunny day, the weather is cool. I recognize him and his wife, Dr. Linda Labranche. They met while Rideau was still an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary—or “Angola”—where until 2005 he had been serving out a life sentence for nearly 44 years.

While inside Angola, Rideau became one of the most powerful men in the Louisiana Prison System on either side of the law. In 1975, 14 years after he was convicted of murder, he became editor of Angola’s prison magazine, The Angolite, and served in that capacity for 25 years with a single prescription from the warden: He could print anything he wanted, as long as it was true.

This was a revolutionary development—not only for prison journalism, but for what the public knows at all about the inner workings of prison life. Rideau and his associates wrote about violence, the prison economy, prison health and mental health care, death in prison—by execution and otherwise—and a slew of other topics never so closely or openly examined.

Rideau won the George Polk Award for journalism in 1980 for his article “The Sexual Jungle.” During Rideau’s editorship, the magazine won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, a 1981 Sidney Hillman Award, and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, which Rideau also received individually. The Angolite is the only prison magazine ever nominated for a National Magazine Award, for which it was nominated seven times.

After his initial conviction in 1961, Rideau was retried and convicted twice, only to have both verdicts later thrown out on constitutional bases. In 2005, after becoming well-known nationwide for his journalism and clearly rehabilitated, he was freed during a fourth trial by a jury that found him guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, for which he had already served twice the maximum time required by law.

Rideau co-edited Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars, a collection of articles from The Angolite, along with Ron Wikberg. He is also the author of In The Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, an autobiography. He is 69 but looks like he could be in his late fifties. He is a compact man with dynamic energy to him. He is quick to smile, laugh, and crack a joke. He buys me a coke and himself a boudin, which he says he tries wherever he goes. His commitment is evident—hotel lobbies aren’t particularly known for their sausage.

What follows is an edited transcription of our conversation.

Room 220: How’s the boudin?

Wilbert Rideau: Not very good.

Rm220: I expected as much. It’s been six years since your release. What have you been doing?

WR: Not “since I was released.” That sounds like somebody decided to let me go—you know, “release me.” It’s been six years since a jury freed me. I am a firm believer in a jury system.

Rm220: Are you?  After four trials, three of which you—

WR: That was ridiculous—all-white, all-male juries. I never had a defense because I never had real lawyers. I never had resources. I was convicted back in 1961. This is before the freedom riders, before the Civil Rights movement. This was back when they did what they felt like doing and dispensed justice. It was a whole different ball game. They gave me two real estate lawyers. When the prosecution finished presenting its case, they had a lunch break, came back, and my lawyers announced: The defense rests.

You see, the problem is [my first] trial set a pattern and laid a foundation for what they described in the crime, and everything else was never contested after that. It stayed like that for forty-four years.

Rm220: I thought about that while reading your book—the importance of telling your own story, the idea of the dominant narrative.

WR: It’s important for there to be independent media. As a rule, when you’re talking about criminal justice, the first narrative of any crime is the prosecution’s, because as soon as something happens, the media runs over to a cop or D.A. and says, Tell me what happened. So, that is the narrative. And it’s not necessarily the truth. The problem is that there has never been that much independent media in the Deep South. And when I say the Deep South, this is as deep as it gets.

Rm220: Was one of your aims with The Angolite to create an independent, unbiased, uncensored media?

WR: There was a need for another perspective. And I didn’t do it alone—the Department of Corrections head, C. Paul Phelps, was a remarkable visionary. He thought there was a role for a free press inside prison.  And that was novel. It was unprecedented in America. And we said, Let’s try it on a handshake.

All good prison journalists keep editing sparrows on their shoulders to help with style and grammar

Rm220: I wanted to talk to you about upon being freed, what surprised you outside and what didn’t surprise you.

WR: You learn a lot from television, and I did a lot of reading. So I knew a lot more than a lot of these guys getting out. But still, all the reading, all the stuff you see on TV, it still doesn’t prepare you for the reality of it. The first thing that got me was the size of everything. I left a world that was totally different than the one I reentered. The world I left, people were smaller, cars were smaller, homes were smaller. I got out here and every thing was super huge. SUVs and all these big cars, they’re almost like small buses. Homes—people had small homes when I was out there. Now, they are all living in what, back then, would’ve been called small mansions.

And Wal-Mart—I went to Wal-Mart, man—I had never seen a building that huge. The size of it just blew me away. And seeing all the black people in jobs they were never permitted to have—I mean, the whole world had changed. And that was all surprising.

Rm220: I wanted you to talk about your education through reading and television. A lot of In the Place of Justice feels like it is sort of about education of the self.

WR: Forget educating. Let’s talk about reading. I tell people this all the time. I say: Just read. Most of these guys [inside] have never read before in their lives. They are just like I was. I had never read before in my life. And reading—whether it is for a prisoner or for a housewife, anywhere in the United States—reading is the most powerful thing you will ever do for yourself. It is an investment in yourself. And you don’t have to try very hard. If something interests you, just read it. You don’t have to think about educating yourself. Gradually, it will. Not only will it educate you, it will transform you. That’s the power of reading. That’s something I really, really try to counsel people about.

Rm220: Are there are a couple texts that you can kind of point to that were formative for you, that you think about with your own writing and your formation as a writer?

WR: In my personal history there were a number of things. The first thing that got me interested was a historical novel about slavery. The next thing was The Fabric of Society. An LSU student who worked part time at East Baton Rouge Parish Jail used to bring his books and let me read them. The Fabric of Society was the first thing that ever explained society, the world, me, everything. It was a huge green book, a college textbook. And I read that thing and when I finished reading it, I read it again. Because it was the first time everything was explained to me—life, the world I live in, my relationship, expectations, obligations. Everything. And I had never had that before. Not in school, not from my parents, nothing.

And then I read Atlas Shrugged. All of Ayn Rand’s  works are about this strong individualism, and I needed that at the time I read it, because it sort of made you realize that you cannot be depending on things. You have to do things yourself and be independent, self-sufficient. And you need to start feeling like that and not be expecting anything from anybody. So, that worked for me when I needed it.

But I didn’t read like most people. People ask me, What was your favorite book and what did you keep going back to reread? We didn’t do that in prison. We could only have so many books. We couldn’t have stuff in our cells. And you only read what’s available. Initially, there was just a black market. And what was available initially was a whole bunch of cowboy books, because the white boys controlled the black market. That’s what they liked to read. So, I ended up reading plenty of cowboy books. You know, Louis L’Amour and all of them. I think I must’ve read every Louis L’Amour book there is. Not that I liked them. That wouldn’t have been my choice, but after awhile I could get into it. But you know, you acquire your education on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

Rm220: Your work with The Angolite served as a bridge between prisoner experience and the prison administration. It gave both parties an insight that they previously didn’t have.

WR: The thing that I wanted to do was just that. [Warden] Phelps and I used to have these conversations. His thing was that the biggest problem was how the prisoners see the guards and how the guards see the inmates. They have some very serious misconceptions about each other. On the one hand, the prisoners felt the guards’ whole attitude and objective was to fuck over the prisoners. To make life more difficult. And the guards’ attitude about prisoners was prisoners hated guards and, to the extent that they could, they would try to fuck over the guards. When people don’t understand each other, they think the worst of each other. Like Phelps said, both of them are wrong. And my thing was that the biggest problem barring meaningful reforms in prison was that misconception that people had about the prison experience.

This problem existed because of censorship, which is why Phelps was willing to lift censorship. The administration operated in official secrecy, and the only thing the public knew was what the administrators chose to let the public know. They had all these little window dressing programs that they would trot out to show folks to say, Hey, look, we’re doing something nice. We have a GED program, and thirty inmates acquired their GEDs last year. They don’t say anything about those other 3,000.

Along with that, popular conception has been shaped by the movies and TV shows like Law and Order—cops and robbers, and whatnot. I’ve always been amazed by these criminals I see on these movies and shows. I never met people like this. They’re not that crazy. They’re not that stupid.

Rm220: Talk to me about In the Place of Justice.

WR: I told my publisher, Look—I will write you a prison memoir unlike any other written. You’ve had prison writers from the Apostle Paul all the way down to Jack Abbott, and everybody else. The problem is, as a rule, their work is all very one-dimensional. It’s basically their own very isolated prison experience. A lot of guys who go into prison, they’re put in a cell. That’s it. One guy, Albert Woodfox, he’s been in a cell for forty years. If you ask him to write a book—and he’s intelligent, pretty well-educated—what book can he write?

You’ve never had a situation where somebody went in, spent 44 years there, and during that time I’d been in every place—on death row, I got off death row, got a job at a magazine that required me to go back to death row and cover every execution for the next quarter century, and I got to know all of these people. My job as editor of The Angolite was to study operations in the prison—every operation. I could go anywhere I wanted to find information.

Photo: Akasha Rabut

Rm220: That’s what I was going to mention. You were leaving the facility for your last twenty or so years.

WR: I was able to be in a position where I could see what administrators did. I could demand financial records, everything. And I was operating with freedom from censorship—something that had never happened before. That’s what I told my publishers—you’ve never had anybody who knows this much about prison and what goes on in it. I will write about the entire prison world. I will write about all the people—not just the inmates, but the guards, too. They all interrelate. They all make up that world.

I also wanted to clear up a very bad misconception, and one that is fostered even by ex-cons: A lot of guys who come out of prison want people to know they were very macho and they survived a very bad jungle, and all that. You know, maybe they did. But they misrepresent it a lot. It’s not to say that prison isn’t a bad place. I wouldn’t advise you to go there. But Angola was the biggest and bloodiest maximum-security prison in the country. I spent forty-four years there. I finally walked out of the place. And for twenty-five of those years, I was easily one of the most powerful people in the whole system, and I never had a single fistfight.

Prison for me was not an entirely negative experience. And it wasn’t for a lot of guys. There are guys back here in New Orleans who I know, they’re doing very good in life. And it wasn’t a negative experience for them. And while it was the bloodiest prison in the country—and yes, you had gangs, sexual violence, slavery, all of this going on—one of the points I try to make in the book is that the majority of the prisoners never engage in any of that.

I wanted to write a book that depicts the reality of the prison experience, but at the same time, shows it doesn’t have to be an entirely negative experience, and in the final analysis it’s even a bit inspirational. Because there are guys up there, plenty of them, who aspire to be better than they’d been in the past.

There’s a lot of heartbreak. A whole lot of misery. The problem with being a prisoner is that you have to wade through a river of bullshit. A river of disappointment. A river of need. A river of indifference. You have to wade through it. That’s what tells you what you’re made of. And you have to believe in yourself. You have to prepare for that. And the better prepared you are, the better you can deal with it. I often tell kids out here: You got to have a dream. The nature of a dream is not about today. It’s about tomorrow. That’s what you’re scuffling for, to get there. It enables you to survive today, to endure today, because it’s all about tomorrow. And tomorrow’s going to be better. Not for everybody. There’s not a guarantee. But you have to believe in your dream and believe you’re going to achieve it. That’s all there is to it. There is nothing else. There’s no magical potions that you can drink, there’s no pill you can take to give you superhuman powers to make things happen the way you want. You may well die and never realize it. But if you don’t have a dream, you’re in deep shit in life, whether you’re in prison or out of prison. And like I told you, the only thing that separates me and a lot of the guys still inside is the fact that I was lucky enough to have resources put behind me to get me out. I never lose sight of that. That’s why I can enjoy that boudin.

Nik De Dominic lives in New Orleans. He is an editor of The Offending Adam and teaches writing inside Orleans Parish Prison.