the angolite

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

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 served adequate time.

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.