Published in The Times
Wilbert Rideau was recently sitting behind his desk in the study of his Fifties red-brick home in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when, looking through the window, he watched a youth walk past a magnolia tree, enter a neighbour’s garage and come out with a leafblower. Being proud of the suburb – “An even mix of black and white households and a good mix of young families, singles and retirees,” he relates in a Southern baritone – and pleased with its low crime rate (“Only 1 homicide in 50 years”), he called the police. But when they apprehended the young man and brought him to Rideau to be identified, the 68-year-old journalist hesitated. “I was 99.99 per cent certain it was him, but I couldn’t say so…” He tails off. “I just wouldn’t want to gamble on that 0.01 per cent.”
Rideau, pronounced “Read-oh” around these parts, has more reason than most to be wary of American justice. Described in 1993 by Lifemagazine as “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America”, and elsewhere as “one of America’s longest-serving lifers”, he spent 44 years incarcerated, most of them in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly referred to as “Angola”, and described at various points in its history as “the Alcatraz of the South”, “a medieval slave camp” and “the bloodiest prison in the nation”.
There are few indications in his demeanour that he has served longer than any prisoner in the history of Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish, except, perhaps, a tendency to look slightly uncomfortable in civilian clothes, and an enigmatic smile that doesn’t quite reach the corners of his mouth. You’d have an even tougher job figuring out what crime this painfully polite, articulate, dapper man with flecks of grey in his moustache might have committed. Fraud? Art forgery? Something white collar, you’d assume. But it was actually something distinctly uncerebral: murder.
At 6.55pm on February 16, 1961, as a 19-year-old high-school dropout with a juvenile history of petty crime, Rideau walked into a local bank in his home town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, 125 miles from where he lives now, bearing a .22 calibre gun and a $2 knife. When a phone call interrupted the robbery, he kidnapped two female bank tellers and the manager; when they tried to escape, he shot them, and while two survived, he fatally stabbed one of the bank tellers, Julia Ferguson. He was caught, filmed confessing on TV, put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to death.
The basic facts of the crime would never be disputed, but certain details, and the manner in which he was brought to justice, would end up being debated by lawyers, politicians, law students, Supreme Court judges, civil rights activists and juries for decades. Was the killing premeditated or an impulsive lunge with a knife, the act of a confused 19-year-old? Did he confess freely on TV or was he pressured into doing so by a sheriff asking leading questions? Did he get a fair trial or was it undermined by a jury that included friends and relatives of the victim and witnesses? And how much did the death sentence come down to the fact that he was black, the victim white, and the crime occurred in Louisiana at a time of extreme racial tension, when blacks lived in mortal dread of being lynched by the KKK, and the state was resisting pressure to integrate its schools?
Having finally won release after a fourth trial in 2005, Rideau has now written a memoir, In the Place of Justice, recounting his version of events. The first draft of the book, begun a year after his release – “After 44 years in prison, you don’t really want to lock yourself in your room by yourself to write” – had a notable omission. It featured no description of the actual crime. When I ask why, there is a silence so long that I begin to think he hasn’t understood the question. One of the side-effects of such a lengthy prison sentence, alongside the inability to cope with anything other than simple green salads and vegetables, and the “constant watchfulness and routine examination of the motives of newcomers”, seems to be a difficulty with accents. He says he sometimes needs subtitles even for Hugh Grant movies.
“I wanted to forget about it,” he explains eventually. “Who wouldn’t? Who wants to broadcast the very worst thing they’ve done in life?” Another pause. “Besides, I paid little attention to the proceedings of my initial trial because I felt intuitively that they were going to kill me. And later, because pardon boards had little tolerance for inmates who disputed the facts upon which they were convicted, I didn’t dwell on it.”
We should be grateful that his editor insisted on the description. For nothing else you’ll read will make you think more deeply about crime and punishment, or conveys so much information about a secretive justice system which incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world, with 1 American adult in every 100 – and 1 in 9 young black men – currently behind bars. We learn how the traditional last meal requested by a man on death row often reflects the preferences of their friends, because “condemned men usually lose their appetites in the face of imminent death”; how solitary confinement reduces prisoners to scratching their fingernails on bars, so they can reassure themselves they haven’t gone deaf; how, in a prison where 67 prisoners were stabbed to death between 1972 and 1975, it was better to be caught by security with a weapon than by an enemy without one; and how prison rape is not just the predilection of aggressive homosexuals, but heterosexuals, too. “About a quarter of the Angola’s prison population were in bondage,” he writes. “The enslavement process was called ‘turning out’, the brutal rape symbolically stripping the inmate of his manhood and redefining his role as female. A prisoner targeted for turnout had to defeat his assailant; otherwise the rape for ever branded him as property.”
Despite this, the most remarkable thing about the book is, paradoxically, the hope it conveys. He continues: “There was certainly human wreckage… but people also laboured and fought to create meaningful lives.” Indeed, perhaps the most notable facts of Rideau’s incarceration are that he was not once the victim or instigator of violence and he received just one disciplinary report in 44 years: a guard searched his locker and found “contraband”, a bottle of correction fluid. He admits people are often stunned by this revelation, but is keen to stress that he was not untypical – for all the violence, most inmates did not engage in behaviour that would put them at risk. Also, Angola improved during his time there: by the end of the late Seventies, the death rate fell to about one a year. Nevertheless, there were particular things that protected Rideau from the most brutal aspects of prison life: a death sentence (“I was viewed almost as a martyr and it was believed there was wisdom attached to this sort of martyrdom”); learning to read on death row from books smuggled in by white prison guards (“I realised I had thrown away my life, that the world owed me nothing, that pain is the price of living”); and, eventually, writing.
He began by writing letters for guys who couldn’t: a pack of cigarettes for a family letter, two packs for a business one, three packs for a romantic letter. By the mid-Seventies, Rideau had been through two more trials, one because the Supreme Court dismissed the original one as “kangaroo court proceedings”, only to be convicted of murder twice again by all-white juries, and Louisiana then resentenced him to life after the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. But then an enlightened new warden persuaded Rideau to edit the prison magazine, The Angolite.
As a shy, lonely and “cowardly” youth, he had left school barely educated, but permitted to write without censorship, he proved a brilliant, self-educated journalist and editor, publishing exposés of the prison system’s poor medical services (“After which we were advised that we had better not need medical care any time soon”), a malfunctioning electric chair which resulted in the “completely unnecessary burning of the person being executed”, and the misery of dying of disease in prison – the terminally ill commonly met their end chained to a hospital bed.
While engaged in this journalism, Rideau, who is as measured in conversation as he is in prose, became a kind of ombudsman, solving inmate problems, helping change prison policies (his exposé of rape and sexual enslavement won him a George Polk Award in 1979 and resulted in reforms to how prisons dealt with sexual violence), and turning into something of a celebrity, becoming a correspondent forFresh Air on National Public Radio, the co-director of a documentary, The Farm: Angola, USA, which was Oscar-nominated in 1999, and becoming in demand as a public speaker, travelling with a guard for engagements around the state and beyond.
“I had twice narrowly avoided being lynched following my arrest, then had been rescued from three consecutive death sentences…” he writes. “Thrown into the most violent prison in America, I not only survived, I thrived… People wanted my autograph or a photo taken with me. They congratulated me, some women slipped me their phone number or address. One treated me to a tour of the city, and we made love on crushed clover on the outskirts of town, making far-fetched prison fantasy come true.”
There were times, perversely, when Rideau was sometimes so busy with his work for The Angolite that he had to cancel speaking engagements. “That was hard,” he recalls. “Really hard.” He winces at the memory. “But for me, the weirdest thing was getting off death row in 1973, and in 1976 becoming editor of a magazine which required me to go back to death row and cover executions, talk to condemned men before they died, ask them if they had ever been in love, sometimes being the last person they met.”
Back in the Seventies, Louisiana had what was known as a “10-6” life sentence, which meant lifers with clean conduct records were eligible for release after serving ten years and six months. Rideau, despite his clean record, effectively passed that point in 1971. He applied for a commutation of his sentence in 1974 and was turned down. The same thing happened in 1976. In 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990, pardon boards recommended commuting Rideau’s sentence so he could be released, but to no avail. “The journalism was a double-edged sword,” says Rideau. “It saved me, but it made me high profile and a political football.” He glances across the room. “But if I hadn’t done it, she would never have noticed me.”
“She” is Dr Linda LaBranche, his petite, white, quiet, generous, 63-year-old wife, who was a 38-year-old Shakespeare scholar when she saw Rideau on ABC’s Nightline, being interviewed as one of the longest-serving lifers in America. When she heard Rideau worked on the prison newspaper, she wrote asking what he might need by way of stationery; they met, she took up his cause, they became friends and slowly fell in love. Today, the couple refuse to be apart when I suggest interviewing them individually (“We fought too long and too hard to be together to be separated”), and are so romantic that they make me teary-eyed; I blame it on jet leg. It was an unconventional relationship, even by prison standards: LaBranche admits she saw other people while he was in prison. But she was instrumental in lobbying for his release, keeping his case in the public eye. As Rideau puts it, “You don’t get out of prison without outside help.”
In 2001, Rideau was moved from Angola to a local jail for what he says were the most difficult years of his sentence. “Sure, I was suicidal at times on death row. But I was young, dumb, never had anything, and didn’t feel deprived. But when I came back to a local jail, I came as an old, educated individual, and local jails, for the most part, are full of untamed, testosterone-charged youngsters.”
Given all the disappointments, Rideau’s account of his fourth trial, with his “days in prison inching along like snails, and years zooming past like rockets”, are almost too painful to read. But whereas in his first trial his two lawyers had never handled a criminal case and did not cross-examine the key witnesses, this time he had an army of help: the country’s most eminent lawyers were representing him, and they challenged the prosecution’s 40-year-old version of events, arguing that Rideau reacted impulsively when he killed Julia Ferguson. And in 2005, with white spectators sitting behind the prosecutor’s table and black ones seated behind the defence, a mixed-race jury of ten women and two men convicted him of manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to 21 years. As he had already served nearly 44 years for the bank robbery and killing, he was freed immediately.
Rideau’s chapter on life after his release, is entitled “HEAVEN” and describes a man embracing freedom as an adult with the unadulterated joy of a child. Coming from a world denuded of trees, he develops a love of gardening. Having never been allowed to have pets, he develops deep attachments to Linda’s four cats. He walks around in shorts and sandals, legs bare from the knees down, because in prison he had to remain fully covered at all times. The emotion comes as a surprise: the book, like the man, is relentlessly rational and dispassionate until this point, perhaps because Rideau is such a diligent journalist, or perhaps because he has trained himself for decades not to show emotion. “It would be regarded as weakness in prison, an invitation to trouble.”
And then, suddenly, he describes himself overcome by grief when one of the cats dies. “None of the deaths I witnessed at Angola affected me quite like this. I think back 45 years to the suffering, the sorrow I inflicted on Julia Ferguson’s loved ones and ask God, again, to forgive me.” When I ask if this grief was perhaps also grief for the life he didn’t live, for the children he never had, Rideau asks me to repeat the question, looks at the walls which are decorated with photos of those cherished, now deceased cats, before saying, flatly: “No, I just loved that cat. He was cool.”
In general, he says people outside are kind to him: buying shirts recently, the cashier recognised him and pulled $11 out of her purse, a significant sum of money for someone on the minimum wage. But there remain detractors. When he did his first book signing at Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge there were letters of complaint in the newspaper and threats of a protest from a victim support organisation. Rideau prefers buffets to sit-down restaurants – “That way I don’t have to worry about whether the cook likes me or not.” And he seldom gets to see his elderly mother who lives in Lake Charles. “You don’t do foolish things in life, and going where people have tried to execute you several times is probably foolish.”
Which raises the question of why he has chosen to remain in Louisiana: at the time of his release, an online survey conducted by a local TV station showed the majority of people thought he should not have been let out. “I get asked that quite often… but let me show you why.” He pops out of the room and returns with a copy of the local newspaper, the Baton Rouge Advocate. The headline reads: “Feds: State 5th in growth”. “The economy is holding up here,” says Rideau. Linda points out that not many houses in their suburb have been repossessed, and Rideau then adds that if money were no question he’d live in San Francisco, reminding me that when he robbed the bank, it was in the hope of stealing enough to start a new life in California. But money is a question, not least because, shortly after his release, as a sign of how much the case still divides the state, a judge ordered him to pay $127,000 (some £80,000) to the court to cover the cost of the trial that ultimately freed him. The order was later overturned, but by that point he had declared himself bankrupt.
Since then it has been a challenge to get on his feet financially. At an age when his contemporaries are checking out retirement options, looking at cashing in pensions, Rideau has been learning how to drive and hustling for work. There have been no job offers, which he says he is not particularly surprised by – “It would be a rare employer who would be willing to hire a high-profile ex-con who has vocal detractors” – but he now makes enough from speeches, working as a consultant for capital defence teams and writing to pay the bills on the house which Linda owns. “When I came out of prison, I didn’t qualify for food stamps or welfare. Prisoners normally get given $10 when they leave prison, but I didn’t even get that because I left via court. I have no real financial security…”
The comment makes me realise that the house, which I assumed was furnished sparsely with leather sofas and chairs from Craigslist small ads with the couple’s cats in mind, may be minimally decorated for another reason: necessity. The only real extravagance is a Samsung flat-screen TV in the living room, a Christmas gift the couple gave themselves last year, opposite a wooden rocking chair handcrafted by inmates at the Louisiana State Prison, in which Rideau regularly falls asleep during the evenings.
I remark that of all the painful ironies that have defined Rideau’s life – a desire to escape his dead-end life motivated his robbery, but he ended up in the ultimate dead end; having been condemned by a white society, he was freed by white lawyers; having fought his whole life to be more than the worst thing he had done, he is still defined by it – the most painful may be the fact that, as a prison journalist, he probably led a more productive life inside than he will do outside.
But by this point Rideau, forever the journalist, has clearly replayed his own words in his head and decided he is in danger of sounding self-pitying. “I try to keep everything in perspective – nobody hit me over the head and dragged me to prison, I got there because of my own misdeeds.”
He glances out of his living room window at the back garden that occupies most of his spare time. It is landscaped with azaleas and shrimp plants; confederate roses form a border against the fence. In the far corner sits another cat that the couple are thinking of adopting, though it is feral and damaged and refuses to come into the house. “The fact is that I have gotten out of the biggest maximum security prison in America; 95 per cent of prisoners die there. So I consider myself very fortunate to have had a second chance. I just want a chance to work, pay my taxes, and to be a normal, free citizen.” That enigmatic smile. He stresses his next eight words. “A normal, free, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen.”