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Doing Time, And Doing Good, In Louisiana's Angola Prison
TERRY GROSS, host:
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
Iâm 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
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 didnât 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
didnât trust each other.
So, I talked to the Muslim leader at the time and he - and just tell him, you
know, suggested why donât 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
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 youâve 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, youâve got a head start, youâve got an
advantage over everybody else.
GROSS: Now, you say that you learned about empathy in prison, in part by
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: ...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
Mr. RIDEAU: The thing about that is, he wasnât 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 donât 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...
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 didnât 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 youâre describing is counter to one theory of
incarceration, which is, you know, like lock the door and throw away the key.
Donât give them anything. Donât give them education. Donât give them
privileges, you know.
Mr. RIDEAU: Well, you can do that if you want to but itâs 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,
wouldnât 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, wouldnât
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: Youâre proof that that can happen, that somebody has a transformation in
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 theyâd 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." Weâll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre 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
Youâre married now and the woman youâre 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
(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
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
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 donât 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, youâre 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.
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 didnât
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 didnât all happen the way they
said it did. In other words, I'd committed a crime, yes. But I didnât do
everything they said I - I didnât 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
donât know you. I mean people who donât have no axe to grind with you they, you
know, they just oh, they still have opinions about you. I didnât 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 doesnât mean anything in real life. What it means - in real
life when youâre talking about the media, youâre 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.
GROSS: So what kind of work are you doing now?
Mr. RIDEAU: Well, now I'm - well, number one, I'm writing.
GROSS: Youâre 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
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.
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
GROSS: I was surprised you stayed in Louisiana.
Mr. RIDEAU: Well, that's because you donât 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
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 itâs probably one of the cheapest places to
live in the country. So, you know, that's the reason I stayed there. I didnât
have many choices.
GROSS: Wilbert, itâs 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 itâs 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 itâs 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 freshair.npr.org, 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
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Collection Of Vintage Pop From 'Panama!'
TERRY GROSS, host:
The upheavals in popular music of the '60s and '70s happened all over the
world. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a series of anthologies that
tell the story of vintage pop in Panama.
(Soundbite of music)
MILO MILES: In a recent Fresh Air piece, I talked about the timeless allure of
legendary dance clubs like the Palladium in New York. But just as fascinating,
in their way, are vibrant music scenes that never became more than regional hot
spots. One lovely example that's recently come to light through reissue
anthologies is Panama in the '60s and '70s.
With the straightforward titles of "Panama!," "Panama! 2" and "Panama! 3,"
these collections resulted from actions that have to happen any time an unknown
scene is exposed to the wider world. Somebody, in this case a fellow named
Roberto Gyemant, has to go around to radio stations and secondhand stores that
haven't thrown out their old vinyl, and then, as they say, start digging
through the crates. Pretty soon, irresistible treasures show up.
(Soundbite of music)
MILES: While searching for records, Gyemant concentrated on the years from the
mid-'60s to the late '70s and discovered bands influenced by South America,
particularly Colombia; and the Caribbean, particularly Cuba and Puerto Rico,
rather than countries to the north. Panama is both a bridge and a crossroads,
so the cheerful combination of styles can be startling. Is Sir Jablonsky's
"Juck Juck Pt. 1" calypso? Reggae? Salsa? More like a madcap combo of all
(Soundbite of song, "Juck Juck Pt. 1")
SIR JABLONSKY (Singer): (Singing) A joker in English. A joker in Spanish.
(Foreign language spoken) lord what is this? Joke. Joke. Joke. A joke in the
front, joke in the back. (Foreign language spoken)Oh Lord, what is that? Joke.
Uh-huh. Good luck. Joke. Joke. Oh.
MILES: This Panamanian music was also the creation of a time as well as a
place. Not only did musicians cover salsa stars like Willie Colon, but the
forces of soul and funk were felt on the isthmus as much as anywhere else. This
could misfire - James Brown is imitated but not even close to duplicated on
these anthologies - but could also produce magic, like this version of Bill
Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine."
(Soundbite of song, "Ain't No Sunshine")
MILES: The "Panama!" anthologies introduce some delightful, sturdy bands - I'm
particularly fond of the Silvertones and Maximo Rodriguez and His Panama Stars
- but, sadly, no extraordinary vocalists. More important, amidst all the
diversity, what exactly is Panamanian about the music? Although indigenous folk
forms certainly play a part, I think the answer concerns an attitude more than
The finest tracks on the "Panama!" collections have the feel of a lovable,
lighthearted scavenger hunt through a worldwide marketplace of music. These
tunes are as unselfconsciously multicultural as any I've heard.
Begin with "Panama! 2," the most consistent and high-energy of these
collections, as well as the best balance of folkloric and urban-fusion. You may
even get caught up enough to agree with the boast that ends one number: Panama
- bridge to the world, heart of the universe.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed the "Panama!" anthologies on the
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We have this correction to an interview we broadcast about tobacco last
week. New York Times reporter Duff Wilson referred to a government case against
tobacco companies as a criminal conviction. In fact, the tobacco companies were
found guilty of violating civil racketeering laws.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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