Down But Out: Rideau, Famed Prison Journalist, Freed

By: (AP) He's been described as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." He's an honor student gone wrong. A dropout who, at 19, saw bank robbery as his only way out of poverty. A man who reawakened his mind in prison after getting off death row. An award-winning prison journalist.

Now Wilbert Rideau is a legal marvel: A man who won his freedom 44 years after killing a bank teller.

On Saturday, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter, a verdict that won him quick release since he had already served more than the maximum sentence of 21 years.

He has never denied holding up a branch bank -- one where he was known, because he'd done odd jobs there -- on Feb. 16, 1961, taking three employees hostage, shooting them all and stabbing teller Julia Ferguson to death.

But he never gave any details until this trial, when he said the kidnapping, shootings, and murder were the result of panic.

Rideau had been an honor student in segregated Lake Charles until eighth grade, when his parents divorced. He dropped out of school at the age of 13. He'd never been in trouble with the law until the holdup. But, he told The Associated Press in 1980, had he continued "the life I was leading back then, I would have been dead long ago."

He was pushing a broom by day, frequenting pool halls and gin joints at night, according to a biography compiled by his supporters.

Eighty minutes after the holdup, he was under arrest. The next day, Sheriff Henry "Ham" Reid had him in a television studio, saying "yes" to questions about what he had done. That film was shown on the evening news, and again and again.

He was convicted later that year, and spent the next decade on death row.

"They didn't even allow exercise in those days," Rideau said in 1980. "You went in and were locked down and you stayed locked down.

"They didn't believe in books, neither. On death row you could read the Bible. It was bread and water if they caught you with anything else."

Some white guards -- both at Angola and in the parish jails while he was held during appeals -- smuggled him books, according to the biography.

Rideau spent his time reading and learning to write. He wrote a book about criminality and a novel. An editor at a New York publishing house "tutored him through the mail in the art of writing," his biography said.

"I had to do something to hang onto my sanity, so I read. ... The only other thing to do was write," he said in 1980. "At first, I wrote letters for guys who couldn't write. For a letter, I charged a pack of cigarettes."

Then he was moved into the Big Yard of what was then the nation's bloodiest prison.

A federal judge wrote in 1975 that conditions at Angola "shock the conscience". Guards beat inmates and ignored daily rapes and stabbings, according to one of the inmates whose suit Judge E. Gordon West was deciding. Roaches infested the food; medical problems went untreated.

The prison magazine's staff was all white, and wouldn't let Rideau join. So he started his own, "The Lifer," and began writing a weekly column for a chain of black newspapers.

"I didn't want a criminal act to be the final definition of me," he told the AP in 1999. "I picked up a pen and tried to do something good. It allowed me to weave meaning into what would have been a meaningless existence. It also gave me a chance to try to make amends."

In 1976, C. Paul Phelps -- then the state's corrections secretary and acting warden at Angola, and later the first person to use the "most rehabilated" praise -- named Rideau editor of The Angolite and gave him almost unheard-of freedom of the press.

A year later, The Angolite became the first prison publication ever nominated for the National Magazine Awards. Under Rideau and Billy Wayne Sinclair, named co-editor in 1978, it won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, and the Polk Award.

They wrote about inmate suicides -- including one by a man who made Sinclair promise not to call for help and then talked about his reasons for slitting his wrists. They wrote about homosexual rape, prison riots, and prisoner rights.

Their celebrity also brought another kind of freedom. Rideau was allowed to travel, under guard, to speaking engagements both around the state and as far afield as Washington, D.C., where he addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and on radio and national TV.

Rideau stepped down as the Angolite's editor in 1995, but kept writing. He wrote and narrated an award-winning National Public radio documentary. He directed "The Farm," which won the 1998 documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar.

And he was turned down for parole, again and again. Three times, the parole board rejected clemency requests. Under both Govs. Edwin Edwards and Buddy Roemer, the parole board recommended him twice for parole. Each governor turned him down. Twice.

Then, 28 years after he was released from his death sentence, a federal appeals court overturned his conviction because blacks had been excluded from the grand jury which indicted him in 1961.

A new grand jury reindicted him in July 2001, sending him from the state prison to the Calcasieu Parish jail to await this trial.


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