How to Publish a Magazine in a Maximum-Security Prison

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In 1961, Wilbert Rideau, a nineteen-year-old with an eighth-grade education, robbed a bank in Lake Charles, the small Louisiana town where he lived. During a botched getaway, he killed a teller named Julia Ferguson. Rideau spent twelve years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, a former plantation that occupies as much land as Manhattan. Then in 1972, the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s death-penalty law; Rideau soon joined the prison’s general population. After trying and failing to get a job at The Angolite, an all-white prison magazine, Rideau created The Lifer, which may have been the first African American prison periodical.

The Lifer was shut down after only two issues. Rideau, however, started to freelance for regional newspapers, and even wrote a story for Penthouse about Angola’s Vietnam veterans. In 1976, when a reformist official named C. Paul Phelps became Angola’s warden, he named Rideau the new editor of The Angolite. “Phelps felt there was a role for freedom of expression and journalism in prison,” Rideau told me. “Censorship, and keeping everything a secret, was counterproductive to changing things.” The magazine had its own unrestricted phone lines, cameras, and tape recorders; Rideau often reported outside the prison with unarmed escorts, and, on two occasions, attended a convention of newspaper editors in Washington, D.C. He said at the convention that, even in an institution rife with violence and conflict, The Angolite “had proven valuable at easing tensions”—not only because it countered rumors with reporting but also because it helped “keeper and kept understand each other.”

Under Rideau’s leadership, The Angolite was nominated for seven National Magazine Awards. One of his stories, “Prison: The Sexual Jungle,” about men who raped and subjugated other men in Angola, won the George Polk Award. “The act of rape in the ultramasculine world of prison constitutes the ultimate humiliation visited upon the male,” Rideau wrote. In the seventies, American prisons still tended to aim for rehabilitation rather than punishment, and the story led directly to policy reforms. But, at a time when Louisiana’s governor commuted many serious sentences, Rideau was repeatedly denied release, seemingly because of his high profile. Only in 2005, after his murder conviction was overturned and he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, did he win his release. Now eighty-two, Rideau has spent the past nineteen years with Linda LaBranche, who fought for his release and then married him, and several cats. He still works as a criminal-defense consultant.

On April 12th, the George Polk Awards, which honor a CBS journalist who was murdered during the Greek Civil War, named Rideau one of its career laureates. In advance of the occasion, I called him from the often stormy recreation yard at Sullivan Correctional Facility, in New York’s Catskill Mountains often exposed to the snow and rain. I found his story relatable: in my twenties, with a ninth-grade education, I was convicted of murder and given a sentence of twenty-eight years to life; I started to report stories after taking a creative-writing workshop in prison. Rideau and I spoke in the course of several weeks, during half-hour calls for which a prison contractor, Securus, charges $1.25. I asked him about his Southern childhood, the power of reading and writing, and his provocative case for professional relationships between prison officials and prisoners. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the first book you read on death row?

“Fairoaks,” by Frank Yerby—a plantation novel. I was totally shocked that something like this existed, because, you have to understand, the world I came from didn’t teach slavery to the students.

The first time you learned about slavery was reading Frank Yerby on death row?

On death row!

In your memoir, you wrote that reading allowed you “to emerge from my cocoon of self-centeredness and appreciate the humanness of others—to see that they, too, have dreams, aspirations, frustrations, and pain. It enabled me finally to appreciate the enormity of what I had done, the depth of the damage I had caused others.”

It’s why I’m such a pro-book person. It’s exposure to other perspectives, to other lives, to other beings, to other worlds.

You grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

It was the Deep South—a totalitarian regime that was all about white men. As far as criminal justice goes, let me hip you to something. You’re a prisoner, and you’ve been through the system. But I come from a world before Gideon v. Wainwright. You didn’t have a right to an attorney. You didn’t have a right to anything except to complain, to pray, and maybe to die. At a certain point, because of Emmett Till and sensational stuff that was disturbing the country, they decided that lynching Black folks was bad for their public image. So they transferred what they were doing from the tree and the rope to the courtroom. In 1961, I was a product of that world. I was frustrated. I was angry.

At nineteen, you probably couldn’t wrap your head around all this.

I was really, really ignorant. I didn’t even know who the hell the governor was. And the crime, even in my own opinion, was really stupid. I tried to rob a bank, it got out of hand, and I panicked. I was scared. One of the tellers ended up dead. I killed her. I’m responsible for that.

Eight weeks later, I was tried by a jury of all white men, and in an hour they came back with a verdict of death. The United States Supreme Court threw out the death sentence, called it a kangaroo-court proceeding. In 1964, twelve white men again found me guilty and gave me the death penalty, in fifteen minutes. In 1970, a federal court threw that conviction out, too. And again, twelve white men found me guilty, this time in eight minutes. Three juries with all white men, in a state where half the people are women, and a third of the population was Black. That was justice back then. That’s why they called it “lynch law.”

I mean, we’re all so ignorant when we come to prison.

And a lot of us grow up like a weed in the crack in the sidewalk someplace—untended, unguided. Just on its own. That’s asking for trouble. I mean, the fact that some of us turn out to be a beautiful flower, that’s a miracle.

After the Supreme Court decision in 1972, when you got off death row and moved into the Louisiana State Penitentiary’s general population, you had to get a weapon, right?

Everybody did. The guys who were creative, we hung together to kind of protect ourselves. I try to explain to people that, in a lot of ways, sentencing me to death saved my life. Putting me on death row [initially] protected me from the violence in the prison.

You started pursuing writing ventures. You couldn’t get a job with The Angolite, so you started The Lifer. What did that look like?

We put together the paper at night. I was a commissary clerk. I’d hook up the electric typewriter, and other guys in different offices would type up articles. I had this contact; he was a gangster, and he would let us use the copy machines. They wanted a little money, and we took care of that. They’d print it out, and we’d take the sheets to an empty place, usually the education department. We’d have different lifers pulling them together, stapling them, and binding them into magazines. After that, we had people who took them over to the different prison camps.

Angola is eighteen thousand acres big. Guys live miles away from each other. It’s like any other world, with its own economy, with thousands of inmates. And, despite the divisions between one another, people worked together and did business. It was organized. The hardest thing was to stay in business. A couple of paragraphs in a little news report pointed out a shortage in toilet paper. That caused them quite a bit of embarrassment, because they had ladies bringing toilet paper to the prison.

How did ladies read The Lifer?

We had supporters outside, and I made it a point to get the magazine to churches. For the second issue, we were selling issues and even obtained legal counsel, the A.C.L.U. of New Orleans. That’s what got me put out of business. But it’s also what made me a leader.

So then you started freelancing. And, at one point, they put you in the hole for writing about the rodeo?

That’s when I ended up on the front page of the Black newspapers.

You’re building a name for yourself. They gotta contain this Rideau guy.

Well, they did. They had to do something. The question is: what?

[Recorded message: “Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.” I call Rideau back.]

By the end of 1975, the warden offers you The Angolite, but you don’t want to take it because that will cause a beef. You’re trying to be shrewd?

No, I was trying to make the right decisions. Once you become a leader, you kind of get locked into leadership. Thing is, they hadn’t cleaned up the prison yet. Everybody had weapons. Some guys even had guns. The world of prison was divided by race: Black and white. And everybody is playing for keeps, man. You can’t just make crazy decisions. I was seen as the Black leader of the Black paper. And then you got the whites that look at The Angolite as theirs. I didn’t want a war; I wanted to create a peaceful transition. I knew The Angolite editor, Bill Brown, was eligible for parole, and he had this woman he wanted to marry. And I told him, “Hey, man, if we don’t coöperate on this, you ain’t gonna make parole.” We made it work.

So you give up your weekly column, which is making you money.

I’d write one column a week for twenty dollars. The local white papers paid a couple hundred.

What’s The Angolite paying?

Two cents an hour. The same as the guys in the fields.

It’s like a plantation down there. But it seems to promote relationships—even though it’s this eerie paternalistic and racist thing, right?

If you went to a party at the governor’s mansion, people in a tuxedo waiting on you—they’re serving life for murder. When the governor left, they were freed. This is the way it was in Louisiana. Things started changing when we had people who wanted to reform prison, and started saying that they’re taking advantage of those poor prisoners. I’m telling you, most of the prisoners who were beneficiaries of the system, they didn’t want to lose that.

Shit, I wouldn’t want to lose it, either. Here in New York, we don’t talk to administrators at all. They walk right by your cell. There’s never a conversation.

I spent forty-four years in Angola, which was supposed to be the worst system in the country, but I can’t even imagine that. The problem you are running into is a system-wide culture that promotes, “Do not talk to these assholes, do not fraternize with them, don’t be friendly with them. They’re here to be punished.” Even in all its brutality, in the past—and that’s all I can speak to—it was more humane than a lot of what they do today.

__Just recently, when a new acting commissioner of the prison system, Daniel Martuscello III, came in, I started writing to him. In one of my correspondences, I mentioned that I have these writing mentees I’m working with, and I asked him for a classroom to have a workshop. And, apparently, he called the superintendent down here and she gave me a workshop. I was just gonna ask your take on that. How do I pursue this without pissing off the leadership in my prison?

It doesn’t matter whether they’re a warden, a lowly security guard, or your fellow-prisoners. Basically, they all want the same thing: to be judged in their own right. That’s the way you approach relationships with anybody. That’s the way it was with Phelps.

When you started at The Angolite, it had to be a step up from The Lifer magazine.

The Angolite was a step up. It was printed at a press that was operated by prisoners. And, once we started winning awards, they were all proud of it, you know? Forget who wrote it, or who took the photograph! [Rideau laughs.] Everybody had a piece of the action. It was a great thing.

There’s a real solitary aspect to being a freelancer. I report in the yard, go back to my cell, transcribe notes, figure out the story. What you describe has more human interaction, a collegial atmosphere. How’d you spot stories?

I mean, you talk with these guys, you live with them, you hear their stories. Hell, I’m in a laboratory with them.

So the year is 1979, and you’re working on an exposé about prison rape. Tell me about James Dunn.

Stinky Dunn! He deliberately let himself go dirty and filthy to keep potential rapists off of him. A lot of young guys did that. That’s why his nickname was Stinky Dunn. Thing is, these were all very real people, very real stories.

Yeah, I felt for Dunn. What was the prison population’s reaction when “The Sexual Jungle” came out?

What you really want to get at is why I even did the piece to begin with. Back then, there was mass censorship in the nation on prison matters. I mean, when I got off death row, nothing prepared me. I read hundreds of books, criminal justice and everything, but they never talked about sexual violence and enslavement of prisoners by other prisoners. I wanted to explain this whole world. Back then, the federal court had instructed Louisiana to end the violence. Angola was the bloodiest prison in the country. They thought gay men caused the sexual violence, so they started removing all of them from the general population to solve the problem.

But, clearly, that’s not the case.

It was the heterosexuals doing it. Somebody needed to explain this. You’ve got guys walking around going to the movies with their “old lady”—or slaves—on their arm. Nobody thought it was a big deal. That’s what happens in those small subcultures. Your sense of right and wrong becomes distant from reality. I figured I could get them to talk about it.

I had to start by talking to the officials, who acknowledged what was going on. Imagine them telling that to the New York Times! A lot of people talked to us because they felt we understood. Part of my whole objective was to humanize everybody in prison, whether it’s ourselves or the guards. Because that is part of the bigger problem: people in the streets did not see us as normal, breathing human beings, like themselves.

So you do interviews and take pictures. Folks are in the yard, braiding each other’s hair. It’s a whole culture. When “The Sexual Jungle” comes out, what’s the reception?

Well, the people who were featured in the magazine had no problem with it. But a lot of guys—not the majority—did have a problem. Those who got visitors were concerned that their family and friends and girlfriends might read it. They didn’t want them thinking that they were engaged in homosexual relationships with slaves. All I could do was explain it to them. “Look, they’re gonna see you as they’re gonna see you. If you tell your people, ‘Hey, I don’t do that,’ then they’re going to accept that.” Some of them were quite hostile.

What does that look like?

I had some show up at the office. We can’t escape the ramifications of what we do in prison. We all lived together, we ate together, we slept together. I think it was sixty people to a dorm, and only one guard. So, at night, if anyone wanted to take you out, they’d take you out. Everything rested upon your own reputation, and how the rest of the prison world saw you.

“The Sexual Jungle” became required reading.

In the training academy, all over the state. They practiced zero tolerance and changed a whole bunch of things after that. I know it’s going to sound like bragging, but a lot of big issues in criminal-justice debates—if you go back forty years, to The Angolite, you’ll see we were dealing with it then. The latest big issue has been solitary confinement. The first time anybody did a big feature on solitary confinement, it was The Angolite! What happened is, we got a note from one of the guys in C.C.R.O., the solitary unit. He said, “Man, you writing about everything in prison but y’all don’t write about us. Y’all act like we dead up in here.” It struck a nerve. He was right. I put in an official request to the warden, asking how many people in Louisiana had been in cells twenty years or more. I got a response back with five names. One was a woman.

What’s the name of this solitary piece?

It was “The Plant.” I didn’t write this. I had a staff by then, and I assigned it to one of our staff writers, Lane Nelson, who came off death row as well. Just about all my people were lifers. When Phelps said I could pick my people, I told him I didn’t want anybody who hadn’t been in prison long enough to understand prison.

Can you describe the process of assigning stories?

If I assigned you the story, I already had a basic idea for it in mind. I’m sure all editors do the same thing. You bring the guy in and you talk about it. Maybe a week later, he’ll come back and say he’s having a little problem on something, and you flesh it out. That’s the way great pieces are done. It’s not by yourself.

In “Edge of Madness,” you write about this guy, Alvin Anderson.

By that time, in 1986, The Angolite had become an institution. I mean, if I could travel to interview Harry Connick—the district attorney of New Orleans—and go all over the state, it’s an institution, you know? I got phones on my desk, I can call anybody, anywhere in the country. I talk shop with other reporters and editors from other newspapers. And, by that time, I’ve learned what The Angolite can do.

I wasn’t looking at Alvin Anderson as a story. My friend, the director of mental health—she was the wife of a state senator and pulling for me to get out. She knew I was down in the dumps after the governor had turned me down for clemency. She came up to the prison and took me to the hospital wing. She’s talking to Alvin [a long-term patient in the chronic-care wing], and it dawned on me: I’ll be damned. This guy’s blind! I was just shocked. I got pissed off. And I told him, “That sonofabitch governor might keep me in, but I’m gonna make him let you out!”

Anderson got out?

Yes, he did.

Let me ask you this, Wilbert. How did you learn structure? There are character-driven story arcs, there’s explanatory structure—you know, scene, digression, scene, digression. The long-form magazine writer needs to have those narrative skills.

That’s easy. I sat in a cell for twelve years, reading. There was no school for me to go to.

Yeah, I reverse-engineered magazine articles in Attica. I might interview a guy in the yard or the cellblock, then later, in my cell, type up my notes, add a bit of atmospheric stuff. [Automated recording: “You have one minute left.”] Right now, as I’m talking to you, it’s snowing and a guy is shuffling around, still trying to pick up cigarette butts on the wet ground.

We always had offices to work in.


And I had a telephone on my desk.

Well, now you’re just rubbing it in.

[Automated recording: “Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.” I call him back.]

So, in 2005, they acquit you of murder, and you’re found guilty of manslaughter.

This was the fourth trial, which was the result of a woman—a Shakespeare scholar at Northwestern University named Linda LaBranche—seeing me on Ted Koppel one night in 1986. She went to a corrections convention and introduced herself to Phelps, who was then the Louisiana director of corrections, and asked him about me. He invited her to come down and meet me. And she did.

Linda was the first person to ever go and read through all the trial transcripts. She found the key to getting the third conviction overturned. Every time I won an award, journalists would say I’d cut a woman’s throat. I’d always ask them, “Why don’t you investigate the case?” My lawyers got the autopsy photos, and it was explained that this was from a tracheotomy done in the emergency room.

When I finally got to that last trial, there was only one white man and one Black man on my jury, and the rest were white women. They looked at all the evidence—especially new evidence—and their conclusion was that it was not murder. It was manslaughter, which carried twenty-one years in prison.

So they have to process you out of the Lake Charles jail. After serving forty-four years, you walk out [with Linda and your lawyers]. And this is on Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s birthday, right?

Yes. We walk out into the night, and, you know, it was applause, people blowing their horns. Primarily the Black community. Over at Ball’s Auditorium, they were having a concert, and I was told they stopped in the middle of the thing, told everybody I was free, and everyone applauded. Then, in Baton Rouge, they asked the governor about it on TV. Her name was Kathleen Blanco. And she looked thoughtful and said, “Well, I guess justice has spoken.”

I often think about what would’ve become of me if I hadn’t gone to prison. Did I have to take a life to find my way in life?

I hate to look at it this way, but the fact is, if I had not gone to prison, I would have been dead a long, long time ago. I didn’t care what happened to me. I didn’t have the kind of knowledge and education I have today, where we can discuss this. Back then, I was angry. I just had emotions and feelings. They drive you. You’re too stupid to know anything else.

That’s why I latched on to that T. S. Eliot quote in the opening of your memoir: “Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we made of things.”

I wish I had said it. It’s brilliant. It captures my life.

It’s so fascinating. It’s white men who convict you, but then it’s white men like Eliot and Phelps whom you look up to, and who help you.

Back up, back up. Don’t give too much credit to white men. There’s some white men who I really respect and admire. Men who should be Presidents, you know? But the people who really saved me were women. For the most part, they were white women. When I was a teen-ager working in a fabric shop, my boss was a white woman. I had dropped out of school, and she kept after me to try to teach me everything she could. All the way through the first pro-bono lawyer I ever had, Ginger Berrigan.

It’s almost like you and Linda, now your wife, are living happily ever after. Was she still teaching English and Shakespeare when you got out?

No, she stopped everything when she coördinated my defense.

How has it been for you guys?

We’ve been good. I mean, we worked for this. We earned it. We travel a lot. England a couple of times, Italy several times. Now she wants to go on a cruise. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

You dedicated your book, which came out in 2010, “to the late C. Paul Phelps, my mentor and friend.” You don’t see too many prison memoirs dedicated to a prison official.

Well, I can’t be nobody else but me. Of all the people in my life, except my mother, I cannot imagine anyone who had a greater impact on the course of my life and the person I became than him. It’s really ironic. It’s perverse when you think about it. This is the guy whose job was to keep me in prison. I’d love to be able to have the credit: “I was brilliant. I was a genius.” But I couldn’t create that window in time and that opportunity. Only prison authorities can do that. Sell them on this idea, man! I mean, you can write this story about me and the award, but give credit to this thing that happened, that has never happened since. Sell it to these wardens who are going to be reading this. If it doesn’t benefit you, maybe it’ll benefit somebody else. Maybe one of these wardens will say, “Maybe I ought to try this.” ♦


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