Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

“Society doesn’t know this”

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Check out yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air interview with Wilbert Rideau, who reinvented himself as a journalist while serving 44 years in Louisiana’s Angola state prison, and has now published a memoir. Rideau was initially convicted of murder, but on his fourth re-trial, he was convicted of manslaughter and released on time served. Yesterday’s segment included both a new interview and a replay of an interview from 1992. The interviews touch on a range of topics, including Southern “judicial lynching” practices of the 1960s, solitary confinement, prison rape, violence, and drug trafficking, the need for job training and rehabilitation programs, and the role of books in Rideau’s life. Note that the link also includes audio from Rideau’s dispatches for NPR when he served as Fresh Air‘s “prison correspondent” in the early 1990s.

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of yesterday’s interview about reforms to Louisiana prison conditions in the 1990s:

GROSS: It’s amazing the power that a warden can have, I think, in prison, for good or bad. And there a couple of wardens who really helped turn around Angola and make it a safer place and…

Mr. RIDEAU: Absolutely.

GROSS: …one of them you write about is Warden John Whitley, who I’m personally grateful to because he’s the person who gave you permission to speak to us on FRESH AIR and to do reports for us from FRESH AIR about prison life in the 1990s.

Mr. RIDEAU: The thing about that is, he wasn’t afraid of freedom of expression. In fact, that was something, when I was given freedom of expression and freedom to investigate and publish, you know, without censorship, it was the first time that happened in American history anywhere in the country in prisons. But at the same time, something else that – we had a run of really, I don’t know any other way to say it but we had a run of good wardens. I mean, they took pride in not having anything to hide. And beginning with…

GROSS: Phelps?

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, there was Phelps, yes. After him was Ross Maggio, who cracked down and cleaned up the prison in, what, less than two years he had cleaned up the bloodiest prison in the nation, which impressed me with the fact that it can be done. And once officialdom decides there’s not going to be violence, you’ll put an end to it.

GROSS: How? How did they put an end to it?

Mr. RIDEAU: They put an end by doing everything – of course, they had the money, they had the power. A federal court ordered them to do it, ordered the state of Louisiana to do it, which took away all the excuses. And they were given the money to hire guards. They could fire all the guards. A lot of the guards that were there, they fired them and hired new guards and trained them. And they improved the technology, communications between each other. They improved the prison, improved a lot of things.

I mean, from food to medical care to – because back then you didn’t have much you had hardly any medical care. And they brought educational programs in. It was more than just one thing. It was a prison-wide – they treated it like a community. Every area that needed improvement, they did it.

And here’s an excerpt on how Rideau got into journalism:

Mr. RIDEAU: I didn’t know that when I started out. All I – what I – what I really wanted to do was tell – put it this way: When I was released off death row, I was released into what then was the bloodiest prison in the nation. And the things I saw, and the way, you know, what I saw going on in that place, I was so shocked and offended, and that’s where I just felt that, you know, society doesn’t know this.

You know, this is an abomination. People have got to know what’s going on in this. I just couldn’t believe that society would accept, you know, something like this, the barbarity, the horrible things that were going on. And I just felt – well, you know, I can write.

And I felt it was incumbent upon me to tell society, to tell the public what’s going on, to let them know. So I felt this is a way I could make things – you know, maybe make – I couldn’t make things right, but I can give something back. I can contribute something to society. And that’s the way it was born. I mean -that’s – and I just started – I was very fortunate in that we happened to have an official who believed in the same thing. He thought that…

GROSS: A warden.

Mr. RIDEAU: Yeah, C. Paul Phelps. He thought that a free press could perhaps make a difference.

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