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Unforgiven | The Nation

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Unforgiven

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Rideau won't comment on the crime because he is facing a new trial. But he agreed to talk about the person he was at the time and how he has changed. Though he usually speaks quickly, in perfect sentences, his cadence is deliberate in describing the man he was when he entered prison. "I wouldn't recognize him today," he said. "I was typical in a lot of ways. I was another dumb black, immature, angry. Not even aware that there is a world bigger than me." He says he had a fairly normal childhood, moving to Lake Charles when he was 6. "My home life wasn't the best," Rideau says. "But that doesn't say much because a lot of people's family lives weren't." His problems, he says, began during adolescence. "People used to pass by and they would throw Coke bottles and spit and holler at you," he says. "You could be walking by with your girl and they would call at you talking about you--'Hey nigger, blah blah blah, whatever.'" Rideau knew it wasn't directed at him alone. But he took it as "the end of the world." "I saw whites as enemies responsible for everything wrong with my world. Whites created this bizarre segregated world where racism ruled," he says. In his segregated school, he dismissed the hand-me-down books from white schools, which held forth ideas of "rights" and "how life was so wonderful." Though he had a straight-A average, he quit school in the eighth grade because he saw no use for an education. "I wanted to be a spaceman like Flash Gordon," he says. At 13, he began a series of low-paying jobs and spent most of his time in pool halls and gin joints. "I didn't even know the name of the governor of the state," he said. "I was totally out of it."

About the Author

Amy Bach
Amy Bach is the author of Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court.

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Eventually, he became an errand runner in the fabric shop, his last job before being sent to Angola. In prison, he noticed the strange ethics of prison life, starting with white guards who smuggled him novels and science texts. "I read a library on death row," he says. And in a Baton Rouge jail, where he stayed for part of his appeals, Rideau lived in the segregated white section as punishment for leading a "strike" in protest against prison conditions--flooding the commodes and burning mattresses. When Rideau led white prisoners in a strike as well, the prison put him in solitary confinement. And to Rideau's shock, whites began secretly sending him food and kind words. "Whites started taking care of me," he said.

Within the first year of his life sentence, Rideau asked to join the then-all-white newspaper, the Angolite, only to have administrative officials turn him down. "I read in the paper that they couldn't find a black who could write," he says. The rejection stung. Over the past decade, he had penned a book-length analysis of criminality and corresponded with a young editor at a New York publishing house, who tutored him in the art of writing. Rideau rounded up an all-black staff and started The Lifer, which chronicled stories like that of a group of elderly women who brought a truckload of toilet paper to the prison and were turned away. Eventually, the administration put him out of business. "They threw me in the dungeon saying I was advocating insurrection," he says. White prisoners petitioned a black senator to demand Rideau's release from solitary confinement. "Along the way, the whites that I initially saw as enemies befriended me and fought for me, not blacks," he says. "That experience caused hell with the way I saw things."

In 1975, the warden made Rideau editor of the Angolite as part of compliance with a federal court order mandating integration of the segregated Angola prison. A year later a new warden, C. Paul Phelps, arrived and offered to strike a deal. Phelps promised that the Angolite would operate under the same standards that applied to journalists in the free world--he could print whatever he could prove--so long as Rideau would teach him about life at Angola. Over the years, the two men had many philosophical and political discussions. And they ate together in the dining hall. "He told me that like begets like," Rideau says. Phelps permitted Rideau to become a public speaker, a reward for well-behaved prisoners to travel and explain the dangers of prison life to youth at risk. And with his new freedom, Rideau jettisoned a longtime plan to escape. "The thing that is most respected in prison is character, loyalty, keeping your word," says Rideau. "These are things that are highly valued in the real world, but they are really, really valued in ours." This and the passage of time have changed him. "Part of it is just growing up," he says. And growing up has meant a realization that he may die in prison. Since 1997 Rideau has been president of the Angola Human Relations Club, which cares for elderly inmates by providing such essentials as toiletries, warm caps and gloves, and which buries the dead.

After Rideau became editor of the Angolite, the paper changed from a mimeographed newsletter into a glossy magazine exposing systemic problems and an emotional inner life. One story revealed that the Department of Corrections had doled out money for AIDS programs that were never implemented. Another issue featured pictures of inmates after electrocution--a portrait so horrifying that Louisiana changed its method to lethal injection. The magazine has won seven nominations for a National Magazine Award, and Rideau has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and an Academy Award nomination for The Farm, a documentary film about Angola that he co-directed. He co-edited a book, Life Sentences (Random House). He addressed the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989 and 1990. And he's a correspondent for National Public Radio's Fresh Air program. While Lake Charles watched, the man many faulted with ushering in an era of crime became a nationally respected writer and commentator. "There's no way you're going to give life back where it's been taken," Rideau opined on Nightline in 1990. "But you--you just try to make up.... When it's all over and done with, Wilbert Rideau will have tried."

One blistering August afternoon in Lake Charles, I locked my keys in my rental car and called "Pop-A-Lock" for help. As owner Jim Rawley jimmied the lock, he recalled the night Rideau committed the crime. Rawley was in high school then. His friends wanted to kill Rideau and mobbed the courthouse. "There was a group of vigilantes among us," he says. "I can't remember the specifics. But I remember the atmosphere. Macho kind of stuff, except that we were scared too." Years later, Rawley became a Calcasieu Parish deputy and knew Rideau, who was awaiting trial in the Lake Charles jail, as "a troublemaker." Once, he says, a friend and fellow officer "beat the hell out of [Rideau]" for being "belligerent and uncooperative." When asked if he thought Rideau had changed, he said, "By all appearances he has rehabilitated himself, for lack of a better word. He seems to be a different man than he used to be. But that doesn't negate what he did.... It doesn't change the fact that he was convicted three times. He has never claimed that he didn't commit the crimes. He is fortunate he didn't receive the death penalty." He also said Rideau is a burden to the courts and should stop appealing his case. "If he's a different person he needs to go through the pardon board," he argued. But everyone knows that governors have blocked his release. Rawley shrugs, "It's already been decided, then."

Rawley's reaction was typical of whites I met. Rideau's good actions matter little next to the fact that he escaped the death penalty, as if death had somehow been cheated. And one has to wonder if there isn't some jealousy of his fame in the world outside Lake Charles. Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the unceasing and vindictive punishment of those who have committed bad acts, without regard for the genuineness of their remorse or rehabilitation, "punitive individualism." Law-abiding people don't want prisoners to have anything they can't have--thus the 1994 elimination of Pell Grants (federal educational scholarships) for prisoners and the conflicts over whether taxpayers should pay for weightlifting equipment for prisoners. Rideau represents the extreme of this line of thinking: Most of us are never going to get to be on Nightline. Why does this murderer get to do it? Many white observers view the legal mistakes in his case as technicalities, and his appeals a waste of taxpayer money. After the arraignment, a blue-blazered security guard grabbed my hand very tightly and muttered, "If I killed your grandmother could you rehabilitate her?"

And the more well-known a defendant, the more the public focuses on preventing release. In this sense, Rideau is not unlike famous white prisoners who can't get a break despite impeccable prison records--like Kathy Boudin, the former Weather Underground radical, denied parole last August for a 1981 murder conviction; or Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer executed in 1998, even after the victim's brother begged Texas Governor George W. Bush to pardon her. Their violent offenses do not elicit leniency. "It's not that people are afraid he is going to do it to her again," says Currie. "They are saying, 'Anybody who does this can't be free again; in our moral universe that can't happen.'" This attitude pervades public policy. Federal laws passed in 1994 provide matching funds to states to keep violent criminals in prison longer by denying parole.

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