Wilbert Rideau speaks on operating a press behind bars at UMass panel

By Stuart Foster

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Award-winning journalist, documentarian and prison reform advocate Wilbert Rideau visited the University of Massachusetts to share how he profited from his time in prison.

Rideau presented “Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?,” a talk in the Cape Cod Lounge Wednesday. Rideau spoke to a crowd of more than a hundred about the potential power that prison journalism has to advance public institutions in this country, as well as prisoners’ rights.

“Ending censorship is the single reform that will induce on prisons the most overwhelming benefit for the prison and the public,” said Rideau, who spent 44 years in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary for the manslaughter of a bank teller in a 1961 bank robbery.

Rideau spent 25 years behind bars as the editor of The Angolite, the first prison newspaper circulated in the United States. The Angolite received cooperation from both prisoners and prison staff, both of whom were initially cautious and paranoid of the newspaper.

“As we began winning national awards, we had no problem getting cooperation from anybody,” Rideau said of his significant accomplishments in jail. Rideau believes the in-prison reporting helped all of the members in the penitentiary gain awareness of one another’s situations.

“Employees understood the psychological problems of prisoners, and prisoners understood the humanity of the employees,” he added.

Rideau, who is African-American, had great challenges in getting to such a position, as he “barely missed being lynched by a mob” after killing a white bank-teller, Julia Ferguson.

“That stupid and rash act is my deepest regret in life, and is an abiding source of shame for me,” said
Rideau, who underwent several mistrials after being arrested at the scene of the crime. When the local sheriff assured Rideau his death was inevitable, he testified his guilt after being told such a result would allow him to see his mother, unaware the sheriff and local news network KLPC had agreed to secretly videotape the confession. This confession was then broadcast all over Southwest Louisiana, outraging citizens.

Rideau said it was ironic that he would become a part of the media – something that had used lies and manipulation to demonize him.

Five days after the crime, two FBI agents visited Rideau and similarly promised him a visit from his mother, as long as he signed a statement. The statement said he intended to kill all employees before he had even entered the bank, which qualified Rideau for the death penalty.

Rideau’s trial was no less legitimate, as the district attorney told the jury Rideau “shot the employees execution style,” and another teller testified that Rideau “slashed the throat of the victim ear to ear.” This would later be disproven in 2005, when autopsy experts revealed the incision on the neck was made by doctors in the emergency room. No transcript was kept of the trial, and Rideau’s lawyers had to rely on scribbled longhand notes to appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the verdict, but the U.S. Supreme Court threw it out, calling it a kangaroo trial, something that blatantly disregards standards of law or justice. Rideau was tried twice more in Baton Rouge, in 1964 and 1970, and both cases resulted in a death verdict.

Yet in 1972, Rideau was resentenced to life in prison as a result of a Supreme Court decision, and his life was filled with hope given to him by reading.

“Books were what saved me,” Rideau said, emphasizing that the knowledge he gained inspired him to “not let the crime of youth be the final definition of me.”

Rideau began writing about prison life in Angola State, which was the most violent prison in the country at the time. Sixty-seven prisoners were stabbed to death there from 1972 to 1975 alone, and more than 360 were wounded in this time period. Prison staff thought credible information about the prison would help penitentiary relations, and thus allowed Rideau to manage a small group of prisoner journalists, as long as ethics of professional journalism were upheld.

During his 25 years as editor, the members of The Angolite had the freedom to pursue stories, being allowed to leave the prison during the pursuit of stories and being referred to by prison staff as the “Prison Bureau.”

The Angolite gained the credibility of everyone within Angola, and helped free blind inmates, obtain interpreters for deaf inmates and “forced the state to spend millions to upgrade outdated equipment,” among other accomplishments. In 1989, The Angolite began to engage in broadcast journalism, airing documentaries featured on national television.

Rideau was eventually retried and found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, in 2005, after revealing that much of the original prosecution’s case was “exaggerated and fabricated,” with the grainy broadcast footage of Rideau’s confession disproving the later sensationalized testimonies. The maximum sentence for manslaughter was 21 years, which was 23 fewer than Rideau had served. He was freed that day.

While Rideau is a free man, he has not forgotten how important prison journalism was for him and the institution he belonged to. Rideau said The Angolite, “helped the lives of both inmates and staff,” but he reiterated this should not be the conclusion to prison journalism.

“I’m here to tell you our prison fences didn’t fall, and the guard towers remained in place,” he said about the effects of the Angolite on his prison. He remains committed to the notion that “the walls of censorship behind this nation’s prisons are unnecessary.”

“Both the media and public get distracted by official rhetoric that inmates don’t have rights,” Rideau said, adding that the issue is “equally about the public’s right to know what goes on in public institutions.”

Rideau’s new memoir, “In the Place of Justice,” details the 44 years he spent in the public prison system.

The “Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?” talk is a part of the yearlong “Social Sciences Matter: Perspectives on Inequality” series being held by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected]