Serving Life for Murder, Inmate Editor Wilbert Rideau Makes the Most of His Single Freedom—Expression

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At their convention last April in Washington, D.C., the American Society of Newspaper Editors turned over the speaker's platform to a unique magazine editor. The house was packed, largely because Wilbert Rideau has unusual credentials: He is a convicted murderer. More to the point, he is also the man behind The Angolite, the award-winning bimonthly of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. And that is the dilemma facing Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, as he prepares to decide on Rideau's latest appeal for clemency. Should Rideau, 48, be considered an exemplary prisoner worthy of release or a cold-blooded killer whose vicious crime can never be forgiven?

Certainly it has not been forgotten. During a 1961 bank robbery in Lake Charles, La., Rideau drove with three of the bank's employees to a deserted road outside town. There he shot and wounded two of the workers and killed a third, a teller, by cutting her throat, then stabbing her in the heart. His sentence of execution in Louisiana's electric chair was commuted to life imprisonment only when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment in 1972. By then, Rideau says, he had undergone a transformation. "If you've got a shred of decency in you, you're going to be ashamed," he explains. "I can't give life back. All I can do is try to redeem myself."

Today, Rideau feels he is asking for nothing more than equal justice. The national median time served for life sentences is 8 years, 7 months; Rideau has done 29 years. "All the people who were on Death Row with me are gone home," Rideau says. "They committed murder in prison, dealt dope in prison, raped boys. I did none of those things, and I'm the only one still in prison."

Ironically, Rideau believes his fame as a prison success story may be the very factor holding him back. "If I was just an ordinary prisoner, nobody would ask about my crime," he says. "You lay low, you let people forget about your crime. You roll up for parole or clemency, and there's no problem. I tried to be different. Now I'm paying the penalty for it."

Raised in Lake Charles, Rideau was the oldest child in a family he recalls as "always poor." After he finished grade school with hopes of becoming an astronaut or a scientist, his parents separated. "That's when things started going bad," he says. He drifted into "underaged and underpaid" jobs, becoming increasingly aimless, hopeless and discouraged. Rideau was only 19 when he committed the crime that sent him to Death Row.

It was there that he hit bottom. "I didn't care about living," he says. "But I didn't care about dying neither." Gradually he began to read everything available, first the Bible and then books given him by sympathetic guards. He also began writing. Released to the general prison population in 1973, he persuaded the warden to appoint him to the all-white staff of The Angolite, then an informal 12-to 16-page publication. He became editor in 1975.

Today the crisply edited Angolite contains between 80 and 100 pages. Supported by an inmate welfare fund, its pressrun of 3,200 copies is circulated free to Louisiana inmates, prison officials and legislators, as well as to subscribers nationwide who pay $12 a year. The magazine carries criminal-justice news, prison sports scores, a section on the death penalty and even prison poetry. But its sizable reputation rests on its lengthy feature pieces, many of them written by Rideau himself. "We try to help people," Rideau says. "Not just inmates. We ran one piece that showed that employees here are the lowest paid in the country. That made a lot of inmates angry. But that's what we're all about—trying to make a difference for the whole prison community."

Four times in the past 12 years, The Angolite was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and Rideau's work alone has won several prizes, including a 1980 George Polk Award for a story on prison homosexuality. "Rideau has rehabilitated himself without a hell of a lot of help from the state," says Walter Pence, a retired Angola security chief. "I'd be glad to have him as a neighbor." But not everyone thinks Rideau should be pardoned. "There's no basic change in him," says Rick Bryant, an assistant district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, where Rideau committed his murder. Although Rideau's attorney says Bryant has never spoken to Rideau except for brief, formal exchanges at hearings, Bryant insists, "He's amoral, has no soul, no conscience."

Last April, the state pardon board recommended that Governor Roemer commute Rideau's sentence to 60 years, which would make him eligible for immediate release. Public opinion in Louisiana is running strongly for Rideau, for whom clemency has been repeatedly recommended. But whatever the outcome of the current appeal, it's hard for Rideau to hide his frustration. "I was naive," he says. "The system didn't tell me there's a risk if you attract attention. I didn't know."

—Ron Arias, Ron Ridenour at Angola Prison

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