Freed Prisoner Picks Up Journalism Award

Wilbert Rideau received the death penalty for murder in 1961, but his sentence was later amended to life imprisonment. While at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, he won the George Polk Award for his investigative reporting on sexual violence in prisons. Rideau recently accepted the award in person after 44 years in prison. In this additional "Behind Closed Doors," host Michel Martin speaks with Rideau about prison conditions, his journalism and freedom. Language in this conversation may be difficult for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we go "Behind Closed Doors," as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep hidden. And some of the most hidden places in this country are prisons, even though they are right in front of us. Prisons are for those who have already been convicted. And imagine what it's like to try to raise a flag when you have, yourself, been convicted a murder.

That's been the charge of Wilbert Rideau. You might recognize that name from NPR and ABC News, where he contributed reporting even while imprisoned in one of the most notorious prisons in the country. He spent 44 years behind bars, with most of those years in the nation's largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

During that time, Wilbert Rideau found his voice as a writer. He became editor of the Angolite, a prison news magazine that was nominated for many awards. And in 1979, he won the prestigious George Polk Award for his investigative reporting on sexual violence in prison. But he was only able to pick up the award in person last month, and he's with us now from his home in Baton Rouge, where he's a free man. Welcome, Wilbert Rideau. Thank you so much for joining us.

WILBERT RIDEAU: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And congratulations on the Polk.

RIDEAU: Thank you.

MARTIN: What was that like?

RIDEAU: It was great. Even greater than just getting it is the fact that they remembered me after 31 years, and called me back to get it. I mean, that really blew me away.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the reporting that has brought you so much attention over the years, and to an issue that you brought so much attention to when many other people were not paying attention. But before we do, I do want to talk to people who are not aware of the full story that - why you were incarcerated.

When you were 19, you decided rob a bank - do I have this right? - because you wanted to get out of town. You panicked; things went awry; and two employees of the bank that you attempted to rob were hurt, and the third was killed.

RIDEAU: Killed.

MARTIN: So you never denied that you were involved. The whole question was, was it intentional?

RIDEAU: Right. This was before the Civil Rights Movement, when the state was being forced to integrate. And they turned it into a political issue and they fabricated - they made the case more than what it was. And you know, I didn't have resources or attorneys in order to help me prove that I didn't do what they said I did.

So it wasn't until 44 years later that I had the resources and the lawyers to be able to put up a defense, and show the jury that much of what they said I did was really, fabricated. The truth is that yes, I did, unfortunately, take a lady's life, and there's no excuse for that.

MARTIN: But you're not the only person who has the point of view that the proceedings were not fair. You were sentenced to death for murder three times by all-white, all-male juries. The first in 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court called kangaroo court proceedings.

RIDEAU: Right. They don't use those words lightly.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the issue that you brought to light, which is that whole question of the conditions in confinement. And I also want to mention that you have a memoir, which you published last year. It's called "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance," where you write about your life story. One of the points that you make is that slavery exists in this country, and it particularly exists in prison. You say that possibly a third of the prison population, maybe even a fourth, is enslaved by other prisoners. Tell me about that.

RIDEAU: Between 1973 and 1976, that's the way it was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. At that time, Louisiana State Penitentiary was officially the most violent prison in the nation. It was also the biggest maximum-security prison in the nation. And at the time, prison administrators nationwide would not publicly acknowledge sexual violence to be more than isolated incidents committed by homosexuals against straight men. But I did this feature, "The Sexual Jungle," which I won the George Polk award for. And what I did was show that sexual violence was done by heterosexuals, and that rape and sexual enslavement were widespread in prison.

It was an accepted part of the prison world, and it was done with the tacit approval of the prison administration. That was, I guess you could say, kind of groundbreaking stuff. That was 30-some years ago. Everybody talks about it now but back then, nobody did. Even inmates would keep it quiet because they didn't want their families to think they had anything to do with it.

And prior to the story, the culture was such that this was seen as accepted, macho behavior that conferred power and status and wealth on the rapist. And the story caused everybody to see it in a different light. And that was the starting point of the cultural change that followed in the prison.

MARTIN: Let me just pause right here to say that the next part of this conversation may be not appropriate for all listeners. Maybe I should've said this earlier. But one of the things that you talked about is that this didn't happen like, once or twice - as terrible as that might be - that there are people who are literally used as sex slave, and that they sustain like terrible - not just physical trauma, but also tremendous psychological trauma. There was some young - you talked about the cases of several young men who came in as really, teenagers or young adults and just became damaged forever. Do you want to talk little bit more about that?

RIDEAU: I went and talked to the rapists, the victims, the slaves, the security chiefs and the prison officials who admitted, probably for the first time in history, that yeah, it was going on. But while women live with this fear of rape and sexual violence in free society, what a prisoner lives with is totally different. Because once he's raped, the act of rape strips him of his manhood. He is then defined as property, defined as a slave. He's defined as a female. And from that day, he must serve his master - the person who raped him. And he has to do that for as long as he's in prison or until he kills the guy, or the guy kills him, or he walks out of prison.

MARTIN: One of the points you make is that the authorities know it's going. Why do they let it go on?

RIDEAU: Well, it's divide and conquer. As long as you've got one segment of your prison population enslaving and controlling the other segment, that makes management quite easy.

MARTIN: Doesn't it make some of these people psychotic?

RIDEAU: Sure. Of all the guys I saw who were - became victims and had to live like this for years, they don't recover. I've never known one to. I don't know how they could because number one, you've got the trauma of being raped to deal with. And then after that, you have to go through this perverse situation where you're going to be used as a female for the rest of your life. You're a slave; you have to go and make money for your owner; you're traded, you know, to pay off gambling debts.

MARTIN: What do you mean - you're saying that one person who is controlling another prisoner will send that prisoner to somebody else to have sex, to pay off a debt?

RIDEAU: Sure. Some of them will prostitute them.

MARTIN: They'll prostitute them.

RIDEAU: And others will just let their friends have them for sexual relief, or whatever. But the end of 1977, the prison ended the violence because of a federal court order, and because a official authority determined they were going to end the violence in prison. C. Paul Phelps, who was the director of corrections at the time, told me - he said: Wilbur, if I do nothing else, we're going to clean this place up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Wilbert Rideau. He is a winner of a 1979 Polk Award for his reporting on sexual violence. But he was just able to receive his award in person last month. He is also author of a memoir. It's called "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance." I just want to talk little bit more about your time at The Angolite. What were some of the other notable stories that you covered, along with the stories about sexual violence?

RIDEAU: We published post-execution photos, which established that the electric chair was mutilating the inmates that were being put in it. And that led to changing the method of execution for the inmates who were currently on death row. Another memorable story, at least for me, was having come off death row, you know, was eventually interviewing the executioner - the guy who was going to kill me. And there was the story about inadequate medical care that ultimately resulted in the state of Louisiana having to spend millions and millions of dollars to upgrade and improve medical services for prisoners throughout the state of Louisiana. And there were other stories that got blind people out of prison, got interpreters for deaf inmates, and influenced significant changes in processes - and resolved problems.

MARTIN: You finally were released in 2005, after a jury convicted you of manslaughter, a crime for which you had already served 23 years more than the maximum sentence. So you were freed after that. What has been the biggest thing that you've noticed about being out?

RIDEAU: I left a world back - pre-civil rights movement. I mean, I left a world that was sharply divided by race, where race determined every single thing in life. And you know, when I came out, it was a totally different world. I mean, everything is integrated. My first surprise was simply trying to buy a razor to shave with. You know, you walk into a place called Wal-Mart. I had never seen a place that big before in my life. You've got all these black people behind cash registers. I had never seen that before in my life.

And you know - because when you're in prison, time sort of stops. You're in limbo. I remember one time a woman was walking toward me, talking, and I thought she was talking to me. Hey; hello - I just discovered cell phones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: She was wearing a headset?

RIDEAU: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

RIDEAU: What do you call them, Bluetooth?

MARTIN: Bluetooth.

RIDEAU: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RIDEAU: I mean, I felt - talk about feeling embarrassed and stupid. The biggest problem I've encountered out here is indecision because there's just too many choices. Life isn't - is no longer simple.

MARTIN: Mr. Rideau, you know that I've followed you for years, of course, and you seem very peaceful. Are you as peaceful as you sound? And the reason I'm asking is that a lot of people, having spent 44 years behind bars, seen what you've seen, even though you know you did something wrong, but the price that you paid was far higher than you should have. A lot of people would be very bitter, and you don't seem to be. And I'm just wondering why that is.

RIDEAU: Nah. Number one, nobody hit me over the head and dragged me to prison. I got there on my own. And I left a prison, the prison I was in, 95 percent of the men who are there, are expected to die there. I am very aware of just how very, very, very fortunate I am. I mean - and that's not even counting all the times I've missed, maybe, dying.

The other thing about prison is that I learned to appreciate life and freedom, and that time is the most valuable thing on earth. Life is today - it's what you have, and what you do now. I saw many, many prisoners who tend to put their life on hold. And you'll always hear them say about - well, I'm going to do this when I get out. Well, you know, I reached the point where I saw too many of them didn't get out, and their dreams died with them. And I realized, you can't put your life on hold. The future doesn't exist. I mean, you guys don't get it because you spent your whole life in freedom; you were born in free and it's just like breathing, you never think about it. People who've not been free are people who lose it. They understand. Like those immigrants who fall on their knees when they get to New York? They understand. I get it too.

MARTIN: Did you ever talk to the family of the woman you killed?

RIDEAU: No. If you intruded on my life in a way that I did theirs, I don't want to hear from you. And that was the case with the relatives and the friend - the family.

MARTIN: They did not wish to hear from you?

RIDEAU: They didn't want to hear from me. They made that crystal clear. And the most I could do is respect that.

MARTIN: We are living in a time when this country continues to incarcerate more people than any of our peer countries. And as we think about that - as we rethink that - what would you have policymakers, citizens, you know, keep in mind?

RIDEAU: No society can exist without law and order. So I'm not an abolitionist. The thing is, you don't need what you have now in America. It's not a criminal justice system. It started off about criminal justice. Now, it's about power, politics and prejudice. It's a business. You know, you don't need this because you can't afford it. It's a monster, and you can't afford to feed it because you're not blessed with inexhaustible resources. And it's just going to destroy you from within. You know, people used to talk about reforms. I've reached a point where I don't think you're ever going to be able to reform because you've created a monster that keeps growing.

MARTIN: What's next for you? What are you dreaming about now?

RIDEAU: Number one, making a living. But the other thing is I'm I do a lot of lecturing around the United States. Usually, I find myself talking to lawyers. I also consult on capital defense teams around the country when they're having difficulty with their client. And I'm moving toward the next book, which my wife and I are going to write. This is something that I've been wanting to do ever since my death row days. And then when she entered my life over 20-something years ago, you know, she'd visit me in prison, she got to know a lot of the things and - about these guys and we'd talk about them, analyze it. And we're going to write about it - as the criminal.

MARTIN: All right. Well, come back and see us - the two of you, when you've done that.

RIDEAU: Will do.

MARTIN: All right. Wilbert Rideau is a recipient of the George Polk Award in journalism. It is one of journalism's most prestigious. He spent 44 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary before achieving his release in 2005. His memoir is called "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance." And although he was awarded the Polk Award in 1979, he just picked it up in person last month. And he was kind enough to join us from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Wilbert Rideau, thank you so much, and congratulations on your freedom and on the Polk Award.

RIDEAU: Thank you, Michel.

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