Wilbert Rideau: 'The most rehabilitated man in America'

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Image caption,
Wilbert Rideau learned to read in jail - he later became the prison magazine's editor

In 1961, Louisiana-raised Wilbert Rideau was convicted of murder. He had kidnapped the manager of a bank along with two bank workers. He shot and wounded all three, before killing one of them - Julia Ferguson - with a knife.

He was convicted of murder, by an all-white jury, and sent to what is regarded as the most violent prison in the US, Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Years later, in 2005, he won the right to a re-trial.

The new jurors found that the original jury had acted with racial discrimination, and that the killing was carried out while Mr Rideau was in a state of panic. His conviction was reduced to manslaughter.

Having already served 23 years longer than the maximum term for manslaughter, Mr Rideau was released.

He spoke to the BBC's Carrie Gracie about how, even while on death row, he managed educate himself, become a successful journalist and speaker and eventually manage to turn his life around, earning the nickname 'the most rehabilitated man in America'.

"I accepted I was going to die," he said.

"But I didn't want the final definition of me to be a crime. Because I knew I was better than that.

"When you do something that's wrong, you want to make up for it. The fact that you can't doesn't change your wanting to."

Smuggled books

While on death row, and in solitary confinement, Mr Rideau learnt to read, working his way through books smuggled into his cell.

"At that time, we were only allowed religious literature," he says.

"The first book I read was Fair Oaks by Frank Yerby. A book about slavery, it was fiction, but that was the first time in my life that the whole concept of the institution of slavery was driven home to me."

Image caption,
Mr Rideau has written about his experience in his book, In the Place of Justice

An amendment to the law in 1972 meant Mr Rideau, like all death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary, had his sentence reduced from death to life imprisonment.

Now able confidently to read and write, Mr Rideau began contributing to the Angolite, a news magazine produced by prisoners. That kick-started a career in journalism which has now spanned three decades - 15 years of it as the Angolite's editor.

He represents a rare commodity in the American prison system - a rehabilitated criminal.

"Prison's job is not to rehabilitate," he reflects. "In America, that is not the role. Nobody tries to rehabilitate anybody.

"If you get rehabilitated it's strictly on your own. There's no educational programmes.

"I don't know any more powerful way to change a person than education. I know that."

Although the US legal system is historically conservative, being able to produce what was then an uncensored magazine was an uncharacteristically liberal luxury.

"It's not just enlightened. That's revolutionary. It was totally unprecedented in the United States.

"Prison officials generally operate their prisons with censorship because they don't want you to know what's going on in it."

He credits one forward-thinking prison warden for the initiative.

The warden saw no reason to hide anything, Mr Rideau says, on the grounds that "if the public knew the reality of prison, perhaps they would be moved to change it".

'Not like the movies'

Mr Rideau believes an ability to stay out of trouble and off drugs helped him survive his sentence.

Remarkably, despite Louisiana State Penitentiary's reputation, he managed to avoid a single fist-fight.

"There's a lot things you don't do. Number one, you don't deal with dope.

Number two, you don't get off on anything that will invite violence, or get off on activities that are decided by violence.

"Most prisoners don't live the way you see in the movies."

Now a free man, he says he still struggles to deal with having been out of society for so long.

"For a long time, it was like I was a tourist, in a foreign land, a foreign world. I guess now I'm probably what you would call a resident in a foreign land.

"I don't have the same sense of belonging that you have having been born and lived - you've never been divorced from this world."

After leaving prison, Mr Rideau married a white woman - something he said would not have been possible in the era before his conviction.

"Race is different - in some respects better," he says. "I would not be able to live in Louisiana with a white wife 50 years ago. We'd both be dead."

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