Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Problem with Being a Prisoner is that You Have to Wade Through a River of Bullshit

An Interview with Wilbert Rideau

July 6, 2011 Press Street

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

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

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.

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