First aired on The Current
When Wilbert Rideau entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1961 — better known as "Angola" — he was a convicted murderer sentenced to die in the electric chair. When he walked out 44 years later, he was an award-winning journalist, who was called the most reformed prisoner in the United States.
His memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, is more than the tale of Rideau's personal journey of change and redemption. It is also a story of change for the system in which he was held. Over the course of his 44 years behind bars, Louisiana State was transformed from the bloodiest prison in the United States to one of the safest.
Rideau's story begins with an attempted bank robbery that left one teller dead and two injured. An all-white, all-male jury convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death. Rideau, who was 19-years-old at the time, would spend the majority of the next forty years on death row and in solitary confinement.
It was on death row that his life truly began to change. For the first time, Rideau started to read.
"No one ever taught me the value of reading just for the sake of reading," Rideau told guest host Jim Brown on The Current. "Reading opened up the world for me."
He also started to write, and would eventually become the editor of the only uncensored prisoner-produced news magazine in the United States. He would remain editor for 25 years — winning some of journalism's most prestigious awards, working as a correspondent for National Public Radio, co-producing an Academy Award-nominated film, and travelling (with an armed guard) to give lectures on prison journalism.
In 2000, Rideau was granted a new trial. In 2005, a racially-mixed jury convicted him of manslaughter. He had already served 23 years more than the maximum sentence and was released immediately.
It's a gripping story that brings to life a past that's not as far away as it may feel. Hear Rideau share his story on The Current.
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Visit Wilbert Rideau's website.