Fresh Air Interview: Wilbert Rideau — 'Doing Time, And Doing Good, In Louisiana's Angola Prison' Wilbert Rideau went to prison in 1961 at the age of 19 for killing a woman during a bungled bank robbery. Prison changed him. He became the editor of the award-winning prison magazine The Angolite and was released with time served in 2005. His new memoir, In the Place of Justice, describes his 44 years behind bars.
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Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison

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Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison

Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

While serving time for murder at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Wilbert Rideau became an award-winning journalist as a reporter for and editor of The Angolite. He transformed this prison news magazine into the first uncensored prison magazine in the U.S. and made it a vehicle for reporting on conditions within the prison.

He says his most important story, and the one with the greatest potential to be censored, was his 1979 article "The Sexual Jungle" about prison rape, which ended up being a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

Rideau was freed in 2005 and has just written a memoir called "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance." We're going to hear the interview I just recorded with him, as well as excerpts from an interview I recorded with him in 1992, when he was in prison. After that interview, Rideau did several reports for FRESH AIR about life in prison.

Wilbert Rideau was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1961. At the age of 19, he'd robbed a bank. When he realized the police were on the way, he took three hostages. After one of the hostages got out of the car, he killed one hostage and shot the other two. He described this as an act of panic, not premeditated murder.

As an eighth-grade dropout from a poor family, he couldn't afford a lawyer and didn't understand his rights. He did 12 years on death row, solitary for 11 of those years, and a total of 44 years in Louisiana prisons. He was retried four times. In that fourth trial, the jury sentenced him to manslaughter. Since he had already served the maximum penalty for manslaughter, he was released.

He was described as the most rehabilitated prisoner in America back in 1993 in a Life Magazine article.

Wilbert Rideau, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The other times we have spoken, you have been in the penitentiary, and it so great to talk to you knowing you are a free man. Thank you for the conversations and for the reports you did for us from prison.

I'd actually like to start by playing a brief excerpt of the first interview we did back in 1992, when you were in Angola. So I want to play your description of what prison life was really about, okay?

Mr. WILBERT RIDEAU (Author, "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance"): Okay.

GROSS: All right, here it comes.

Mr. RIDEAU: It's about routine. It's about carbon-copied nothingness. Your entire existence is dedicated to trying to weave meaning into that, because every morning you wake up, you have to justify your existence to yourself, you know, because people in prison live for the same reasons you live - I mean, the same things that - they have their dreams. They have their desires. They have their needs. And prison is all about deprivation. It's all about pain, misery and suffering.

And you know, the present is an intolerable situation, so the only thing that keeps you going is the hope of tomorrow.

GROSS: Wilbert, it amazes me, you know, you were talking about deprivation. You're talking about pain and suffering. You're talking about how you have to justify your existence to yourself every morning, and yet you sound so - you sound like a reporter reporting on that. You know what I mean? Which you were. You were a reporter.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, that's the way I envisioned myself. That's the way I lived. I lived as a reporter, and I had - just like a lot of reporters, the really good ones - I had a mission in life. And I enjoyed what I was doing, and despite everything else, it added - it gave my life meaning, I mean, despite the prison context.

GROSS: Are you still amazed that you're free, or are you used to that now?

Mr. RIDEAU: It's been five years, and I'm not used to it, and I don't think I will ever become used to it. There are many times I'm just walking down the street, and I just feel this overwhelming wave of awareness that, you know, I'm free. It's a great feeling, you know.

Most people - you can't ever appreciate freedom as I do. You've never had it taken from you. You - freedom to you is like breathing. It's second nature. You never think about it.

GROSS: What's most confusing to you about freedom, about the outside world?

Mr. RIDEAU: The choices. You've got so many choices. You didn't have - you know, when I left the streets, what, 50 years ago, you just had certain - a certain number of toothpaste. You just had a certain number of razors. Now, you walk into a store, and one of the first things I'd do is buy a razor. I mean, I just was paralyzed with indecision, trying to figure out damn, well, which is the best? That's my biggest problem. There's so many choices. You just - too many choices.

GROSS: Here's what I'm wondering, too. You know, in prison, you ended up having a lot of power. You edited the magazine. The magazine had power. It was really an investigative magazine, reporting on the prison. Wardens would come to you and ask you for your advice. Prisoners would come to you and ask you for your advice.

But in the outside world, I imagine there was a time when you felt maybe just a little bit lost. It was such a large world, and everybody there didn't know you, and you didn't have maybe that same kind of power in the outside world.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, you know, that's probably the only thing I really miss about prison is that, you know, I was at the top of the food chain. I could make things happen. I could impact my world and make a difference in the lives of other people - not only the world. I mean, out here, I'm just a nobody. You know, I'm just another little fish in a big pond. What can I say? A big lake, really.

GROSS: Wilbert, we've spoken several times before while you were in prison. We spoke by phone. And the book really filled me in on the details of what you went through during your four trials and how many times you were treated unfairly.

But before we talk about how unfairly you were treated, I just want to acknowledge that you really did commit manslaughter, and that Julia Ferguson was killed. You did create a lot of suffering. You've never denied the act, but you have said that you never intended to kill anyone. You wanted money. You bought a gun to rob a bank, thinking it was the only way to get a new life was to get money and get a way out of your life. In the middle of the robbery, the phone rang. One of the tellers picked it up and tipped off the caller there was trouble. Knowing the police were on the way, you took three hostages and fled. What did you think the hostages would accomplish for you?

Mr. RIDEAU: I wasn't thinking. That was the problem. I didn't know what to do. I mean, understand, when people commit crimes, they're expecting to get away. I mean, even in all the - it was desperation that drove me to do this, but even in my desperation, I mean, you don't expect to get caught. If people expected to get caught, nobody would ever commit crimes.

And I didn't know what I was thinking. I was just - all I knew was that everything had been shot to hell. Everything - you know, it was out of control. And I had no control, and I was scared to death, I mean, because I'm sure they were scared to death, too. But I didn't have any - all I knew was just get out of that place in a hurry, and I hoped to be able to drop them off someplace and let them walk back. But it didn't turn out that way.

GROSS: No, the police started chasing you. One of your victims jumped out of the car, and you say you panicked and just shot one of them.

Mr. RIDEAU: Right.

GROSS: When you play back that memory - do you play back that memory? Or do protect yourself from that memory?

Mr. RIDEAU: I protect myself from that memory. It's - you have to understand. This is the worst thing that I've done in my life, probably the worst thing anybody would do in their life. And like most people, you try to put, you know, put your most shameful thing in the closet, because it's difficult to live with.

I hate what I did. I hate the person who did it. But you can't live hating yourself. At some point in time, you're going to jump out the window. That's just human psychology. So you try not to think about it. You do other things, yes, and - but, you know, it has a way of coming back to you. It always comes back to you.

GROSS: Regarding your first trial, it went on appeal to the Supreme Court, appealing the verdict on the grounds that jurors were biased, and there should have been a change of venue. And I want to read what Justice Potter Stewart said about that first trial. He called it a kangaroo court proceeding.

He said that the Constitution guaranteed every defendant basic rights, and he said, quote: "among these are the right to counsel, the right to plead not guilty and the right to be tried in a courtroom presided over by a judge. Yet in this case, the people of the parish saw and heard, not once but three times, a quote, 'trial' of Rideau in a jail presided over by a sheriff where there was no lawyer to advise Rideau of his right to stand mute. No such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death."

So your conviction was reversed. The case was - go ahead.

Mr. RIDEAU: Terry, let me say this. The court was correct, but this was before the civil rights movement, and back then, what happened - the way I was treated wasn't much different from how other defendants were treated throughout the South. I mean, that's just the way it was.

In fact, in a lot of instances, they lynched them. I mean, you know, you didn't go through the judicial process, what we used to call - what we called judicial lynching. They actually would lynch with ropes, just, you know, on the side of roads. That's the way it was back then. It was a different world.

GROSS: So you got retried in a change of venue because of this Supreme Court decision, but there were still plenty of other irregularities along the line.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, they kept retrying me, and they kept doing the same thing. Essentially, I had no defense. I had no lawyers, but I had no real defense. And they wouldn't put up any defense. And it was the times. It was the way things operated back then. It's - that was why they were doing things according to the old way, and we were at a point in time in our history where the Supreme Court was saying no, we're not going to do things like that anymore.

So each time they did something, it was - the next two - they tried me two more times, gave me the death sentence two more times, and the federal courts threw them out. I got a life sentence.

GROSS: You were finally freed when, in the fourth trial, the jury convicted you of manslaughter, and you had already served double the maximum amount of time for manslaughter. So you were just released when your conviction was changed to manslaughter.

So - but let's go back a bit. You spent 12 years on death row in solitary. That's just like an unimaginable amount of time to me to spend alone. And I want to go back to...

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, I wasn't always alone, because I moved back and forth between death row and the parish and the local jails because of - you know, my sentence would get reversed, get overturned by the federal court, and then I'd go back to the jail, and I'd stay there a while, and, you know, that's the way it was. But on occasion, I was in solitary - complete solitary confinement, but other times, I was in cells that allowed me to talk to other guys.

GROSS: I'm going to play another excerpt from the conversation we had in 1992, when you were in Angola at the penitentiary, and here you're talking about your cell in solitary confinement and about the experience.

Mr. RIDEAU: It was a six-by-eight cell. We all lived in individual cells, solitary confinement, six-by-eight cells. And at that time, they would let us out of the cell twice a week for 15 minutes, during which time you had to take a shower, wash your clothes, shave or do whatever you had to do during that 15-minute period twice a week.

You know, people are social creatures. They're not meant to live alone, and I guess the worst company you can ask for is yourself.

GROSS: Oh, boy. Yeah.

Mr. RIDEAU: I mean, that's all you've got for company is just you - you, your thoughts, your life, your past, your behavior, your actions, and, I mean, that's all you've got. And you're removed from all of the social and psychological crutches that keep you normal and keep you human.

GROSS: I like the way you so dispassionately say the worst company you can have is yourself, after having spent so many years in solitary. And I think we all understand what that means. I think we've all had times in our lives when our worst company has been ourselves. So how did you prevent yourself from hating yourself?

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, at some point, you realize that you can't live that way, and you have to come to terms with what you did, accept responsibility, no excuses, and kind of move on and hope that, you know, you try to redeem yourself. You try to justify your existence. You try to - if you've got a shred of decency in you, you want to try to make things right.

The only problem with this kind of thing is that you can't ever make it right. But you try, and that's what gives your life meaning, because it kind of reshapes you.

GROSS: My guest is Wilbert Rideau. His new memoir is called "In the Place of Justice." We'll talk more about life in and out of prison after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Wilbert Rideau. After being convicted of murder in 1961, he served 44 years in prison, mostly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He became the editor of the prison news magazine, The Angolite. He was released in 2005 and has a new memoir.

You kind of found your calling in prison, which was writing and editing, you know, for, was it - how many years did you edit The Angolite?

Mr. RIDEAU: Twenty-five.

GROSS: Wow, okay.

Mr. RIDEAU: About 25, a quarter of a century.

GROSS: Yeah. And so it was the first uncensored prison magazine. You won many awards, including the George Polk Award. And you investigated things that were happening in prison. I mean, it was like a real newspaper, reporting on what was happening inside. How did you know, how did you figure out that that's what you should be doing, that you would be good at it, that you would like it, that you would make a difference?

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.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what you faced when you left solitary confinement and joined the general population, and you were appalled by the barbarity that you witnessed. And I should say that the penitentiary at Angola had a reputation as being one of the most bloody prisons in the United States at that time.

Mr. RIDEAU: There was violence literally every day. You had people getting killed and gang wars. You had drug traffickers rampant. You had sexual violence...

GROSS: Sexual slavery.

Mr. RIDEAU: Enslavement of prisoners. Right, sexual slavery, as well. I mean, you know, if - guys would rape you, and you would - that was a process that redefined you not as a male, but as a female, and also as property. And whoever raped you owned you, and you had to serve him for - I mean, as long as you were in prison, unless you killed him or he gave you away or sold you or you got out of prison. And that's the way it functioned.

GROSS: You wrote an article about sexual violence in prison that is one of your best-known articles. And I think that one won an award, didn't it?

Mr. RIDEAU: It did, the George Polk Award, and it was also nominated for a National Magazine Award.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So when you got into general population, you're relatively short. What did you do to protect yourself as a small man entering general population? Yeah.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, the first thing is I was looking for a weapon. In fact, when I went before the initial classification board, the chief of security told me that, you know, he asked if knew anybody. I said no. And he said, well, you've got to get you a weapon, and either that or go into a protective custody cell.

Well, I just spent all those years in a cell. I wasn't going back to a cell, and I figured that, you know, I would try to make a life in the jungle. And the first thing I knew I had to do was get a weapon, and I looked around for people I knew, and I saw some of the guys who were on death row before who had already gotten off, and they told me, you know, I wouldn't have to worry about that.

And that was a peculiarity due to the fact that I was on death row. Prosecutors and media had so - you know, they so demonize people on death row, you know, as being the worst of the worst, until not only do they kind of scare society about these guys, but they also scared the prisoners. It was kind of perverse, but it spared me that whole - I didn't have to worry about that.

GROSS: Wilbert Rideau will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "In the Place of Justice." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


Im Terry Gross, back with Wilbert Rideau. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1961. He'd shot and killed a woman he'd taken hostage after a botched bank robbery. He spent 12 years on death row, 11 in solitary and a total of 44 years in prison, mostly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Rideau's life was transformed when he became the editor of the Angola prison magazine, The Angolite. And he transformed the magazine into an award-winning publication reporting on prison conditions. His new memoir is called "In the Place of Justice." He was released from prison in 2005 after his fourth trial.

When you figured out that you wanted to write - you wanted to write for The Angolite, the prison newspaper, but you could because you were African-American and only whites were on the magazine and they didnt believe that a black person was qualified to be on the magazine. So you ended up starting another magazine called The Lifer.

Mr. RIDEAU: Right.

GROSS: And it was the publication for and about lifers at the prison. And when that magazine was very successful, you got your place on The Angolite.

There were times when you used your power as editor to prevent violence within the prison and to try to keep peace. And one of example of that was the work that you did with the Muslim community...

Mr. RIDEAU: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...within the prison. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. RIDEAU: Most of the public saw Muslims as being kind of violent back then. And in the violent prison world, where gangs were often feuding and warring with each other, there was often the opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement between - a sort of a peace between them. The problem was that they didnt trust each other.

So, I talked to the Muslim leader at the time and he - and just tell him, you know, suggested why dont you, you know, you guys guarantee the peace. And what that meant was that whichever gang broke the peace he would have to fight not only that gang but also the Muslims. So, since nobody wanted the Muslim's troubles, that pretty much guaranteed everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDEAU: And the Muslims, as a result, got to be seen in a different light. Authorities began to see them as a peacemaking group, a group dedicated to bringing peace in the prison as opposed to being violent.

GROSS: Because you had power and because you were negotiating deals, were there people who tried to attack you?

Mr. RIDEAU: I guess the best way to say this, there were times when I had to, you know, function on kind of on high alert, but nobody really tried to attack me. There were times when, you know, my friends and I found it necessary to have what we would often joke as bodyguards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDEAU: But, you know, my friends would stay with me and make sure I'm not alone. And, you know, if I went certain places I'd have people go with me. But, in fact, Terry, you might find it amazing but I never had a single fistfight in all those years.

GROSS: That is amazing considering the environment you were in.

Mr. RIDEAU: And I was a small guy.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Why do you think that is that you got away without any fistfights?

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, I discovered I had a brain, that God had gifted me with a brain. And I wish I had known that when I was a kid. I mean, I would've never been to prison. I had learned to think. I had become educated. I had become a student of human behavior, as you can tell from the reports youve just played. I had come to learn myself and learn a considerable - a lot about people. And I found that I was - I could handle people. I could deal with them. I could put myself - in fact, the greatest thing is to learn to put yourself in the other person's shoe. If you can do that, youve got a head start, youve got an advantage over everybody else.

GROSS: Now, you say that you learned about empathy in prison, in part by reading.

Mr. RIDEAU: That's true. That's true. I learned - most everything I know comes from reading. I read probably a library in those cells because that's the way I did my time. That was the only way I could survive the experience intact is to just get off into another world. I'd get off into the books. I buried myself in books and I would explore life in the world through books.

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: 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 wasnt 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 dont 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 didnt 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.

GROSS: I should say everything youre describing is counter to one theory of incarceration, which is, you know, like lock the door and throw away the key. Dont give them anything. Dont give them education. Dont give them privileges, you know.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, you can do that if you want to but its counterproductive when you consider the fact that 90 percent of the prisoners are coming back home to you at some point. You know, just in the interest of self preservation, wouldnt you want that guy, that criminal who you sent to prison because he was dangerous and because, you know, he was difficult to have in society, wouldnt you want him to change and come out a better individual at the end of his prison term? Because he's coming back to you, to your community.

GROSS: Youre proof that that can happen, that somebody has a transformation in prison.

Mr. RIDEAU: And I'd like to say, I'm not the only one. There are plenty other guys just like me. They might not be writers but, you know, plumbers, electricians and just everyday prisoners. You have a lot of guys, the one thing I was always impressed with while I - and I never lost sight of while I was in prison is that most of the guys who were in there with me, they all wanted to be better than who they were.

Now, whether they got opportunities to do that or not, that was a different ballgame. But they really wanted to be better than who they were. They came to terms with what theyd done, that they were in the worst situation in their life and they wanted to change.

GROSS: My guest is Wilbert Rideau. His new memoir about his years in prison is called "In the Place of Justice." Well talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Wilbert Rideau and he was sentenced to death and then life in prison at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, where he edited the first uncensored prison magazine, The Angolite, and won many journalism awards, including the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

He was freed in 2005 when his sentence was changed to manslaughter and he had already served far more years than that sentence required. Now he's written a new memoir and it's called "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance."

Youre married now and the woman youre married to is a woman who helped you get free. She heard you on "Nightline" when you were interviewed there.

Mr. RIDEAU: She did.

GROSS: She heard about your case. She investigated your case.

Mr. RIDEAU: She did.

GROSS: She more or less wrote like a legal brief, even though her field is Shakespeare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDEAU: Right. Right.

GROSS: Not the law. She wrote you. Did you at first wonder, is this maybe like a prison groupie type who is going to be trouble?

Mr. RIDEAU: No because she was totally different. I mean, she met with the director of corrections at a correction's convention in Chicago, where she lived at, and asked him about me. She asked him if, you know, I was really being jerked around, if everything she was reading was true. And he agreed and he told her he was a personal friend of mine and he invited her to come down to meet me.

And I was the first prisoner she ever knew in her life. In fact, she was actually a conservative who believed that the justice system did what it was supposed to do and that there were no innocent people in prison. And I mean, that's how she thought back then. She's since changed her perspective on things considerably.

GROSS: By the way, if it sounded weird if I asked if you thought she might be a prison groupie, you say in your book that she sent a photo and you looked at the photo and thought, uh-oh, might be crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, initially. Yeah. I mean when you get letters, you know, from people, yeah, okay. You know, you dont know anything about them at first. So yeah, there are groupies. You think that or you think that it's just some lonely individual. But I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, this is the best thing ever happened to me in my life.

TERRY GROSS I should say, though, there were a couple of, like, obvious potential barriers here. One, obviously, that you were a prisoner and she was free. Also, she is white, youre African-American. You grew up in strict segregation. The jail - the prison was segregated when you got there. I mean, so you hadn't had a lot of like social interactions with white people.

Mr. RIDEAU: Not that much, no. Except for the officials at the prison.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. RIDEAU: And the guards because they were all white, until they integrated things. But, no, she tried to help me in different ways. She felt that, you know, she was one of those people who felt that if she could gather facts and reason, you know, people would understand and do the right thing. And it didnt quite work that way but she ultimately investigated and got the evidence that convinced a federal court to reverse my conviction and give me another trial.

And she also investigated and found a lot of the evidence that - and the things that allowed my lawyers in the trial to present to a jury that showed that what all happened - what the prosecutor said happen didnt all happen the way they said it did. In other words, I'd committed a crime, yes. But I didnt do everything they said I - I didnt do what they said I did.

GROSS: When you got out of prison, were you able to find work? You had won journalism awards in prison editing the prison magazine. Did you want to practice journalism when you got out?

Mr. RIDEAU: Absolutely. But the thing is, I knew before I got out, Terry, that I would be unemployable. I would not be able to work as a journalist because the problem with being high-profile is you have to detractors, even people who dont know you. I mean people who dont have no axe to grind with you they, you know, they just oh, they still have opinions about you. I didnt have the advantage of anonymity and which is why - what helps a lot of guys. And since I had the detractors...

GROSS: But you had such a good - you had awards. I mean you had an award-winning journalism career in prison.

Mr. RIDEAU: That doesnt mean anything in real life. What it means - in real life when youre talking about the media, youre talking about it's driven by advertising, and advertisers may have a problem with you having this ex-con on the staff. So, you know, that's just the way it is. I understood that before I got out. I understood that I would probably end up having to be self-employed. And...

GROSS: So what kind of work are you doing now?

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, now I'm - well, number one, I'm writing.

GROSS: Youre writing. You just finished your memoir. Yeah.

Mr. RIDEAU: I have a yeah, I have the book out and I'm also I'm doing consulting work. I'm taking what I know about the justice system and about criminals and defendants, and I'm consulting criminal defense lawyers and also serving as faculty in training seminars. In fact, that's what I'm doing now in Seattle.

GROSS: Training - what kind of training seminar?

Mr. RIDEAU: I'm at a legal conference - a mitigation conference and I have to give a presentation this afternoon.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIDEAU: And that's what I've been doing, the (unintelligible).

GROSS: When you dreamed about life outside when you were in prison, did you think about problems you'd run into or did you just think I'll be free. That will be great?

Mr. RIDEAU: No. I thought about problems because, understand, I'd heard a lot of ex-cons come back with all sorts of horror tales about life in the streets and that sort of shape your expectations. And I imagined that people, especially since I was high-profile, I expected people to be very ugly to me. I've been pleasantly surprised.

I mean look, people have been very nice. I mean I have not in the five years that I've been - and I'm still in Louisiana - I have not had a single hostile experience.

GROSS: I was surprised you stayed in Louisiana.

Mr. RIDEAU: Well, that's because you dont always get to choose where you want to live at or what you want to do. I'd like to move to San Francisco but I can't afford to. The thing is, I got out of prison without a dime -unemployable. That's not the ingredients for, you know, moving wherever you want to.

GROSS: And you weren't married yet.

Mr. RIDEAU: No. But, you know, my guardian angel happened to own a home in Louisiana and Louisiana was as good a place as any for me to start. I mean, you know, trying to transition and rebuild my life because at least I knew people there. And the other thing is that its probably one of the cheapest places to live in the country. So, you know, that's the reason I stayed there. I didnt have many choices.

GROSS: Wilbert, its really been great to talk with you and I want to thank you for this conversation. And I want to thank you for the interviews and reports that you gave us from prison in the mid-1990s when you were in Angola. I'm really glad you wrote this book and its great to speak to you as a free man. So thank you again and I wish you the best of luck and good health.

Mr. RIDEAU: And before you leave, I want you to know one thing, I want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me back then, over 15 years ago, because that was an entirely new adventure for me and it was one that gave me a lot of - it contributed a lot of meaning to me and I really, really enjoyed doing those reports. I loved it. I mean it gave me something to be excited about and to look forward to other than just prison.

GROSS: Well, it gave us really interesting insights about what its like to be in prison and I'm really grateful that you did those reports.

Thank you so much. Be well and all good luck to you.

Mr. RIDEAU: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Wilbert Rideau's new memoir is called "In the Place of Justice." You can read an excerpt on our website, where you can also hear excerpts from the interviews and reports he did from prison for FRESH AIR in 1992 and '94. And you can see one of the covers of the prison magazine, The Angolite from when Rideau was the editor.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews three collections of vintage pop music from Panama.

This is FRESH AIR.

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