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January 28, 2015

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Road to Redemption: Former Angola Prisoner Wilbert Rideau Receives Polk Award

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At a podium inside the Roosevelt Hotel last week, Wilbert Rideau, 69, stood before an audience of academics and journalists, as he prepared to deliver a speech more than three decades in the making.

"After 31 years they invited me back," Rideau said. "They remembered me."

Thirty-one years ago, while Rideau was serving a life sentence in prison for murder, he was awarded a George Polk Award for his work in journalism, one of the most coveted awards in the industry. He was not able to receive the award in person, until just last week.

Behind the podium, his shoulders slumped a bit, the way you'd expect an old prizefighter's shoulders to slump. The long years showed in the specks of gray sprinkled throughout his mustache, and in the deep grooves in his face.

"When I won the George Polk Award in 1980, a reporter had to explain to me what it was," Rideau said, the audience hushed. "It's difficult to overstate what the award meant to me, a 9th grade dropout and self-taught journalist who had once sat on death row."

In 1979 when the award was first announced, Rideau joined a distinguished cast of journalists to win that year, including reporters from 'The New York Times,' 'The New Yorker' and Ed Bradley from '60 Minutes.'

Rideau was being honored for a series of essays he wrote entitled 'The Sexual Jungle,' an in-depth look at the paradigm of prison sex and the power it held behind bars. He interviewed the "slaves" who had been "turned out," who were no longer considered men, but property. He interviewed rapists, other prisoners, prison guards and wardens.

"Back then prison authorities nationwide did not speak of sexual violence in their prisons. They presented it to the public as something being done by homosexuals, gays, freaks," Rideau said. "But the reality of it was it was pretty prevalent and it wasn't isolated -- it wasn't done by gays and homosexuals, the rape and enslavement was done by heterosexuals, and it was done with the tacit approval of prison authorities. It was part of the internal power structure and overall inmate economy."




The work was raw and groundbreaking, said Ed Hershey, a judge on the Polk Awards committee who voted on Rideau's series.

"It could have appeared in 'Harpers,' 'The Atlantic' or 'The New Yorker,'" Hershey said. "The fact that it was done by and for inmates, was startling."

As word of that year's winners spread and newsrooms erupted in cheers, handshakes and hugs, Rideau was called down to the prison's administrative office, where a reporter waited with the good news.

"He asked me how I felt," Rideau recalled in a phone interview from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "But, I had never really heard of the Polk Awards so, I didn't feel much."

In 1993, 'Newsweek' magazine called him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." But long before that, Rideau was a 19-year-old who grew up poor in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and eventually went on to make the worst decision of his life.

He armed himself with a gun and a knife and decided to rob a bank.

Rideau took three white bank employees hostage and forced them into one of their cars. Once they neared the edge of town, they came upon an old gravel road near a swamp. There, the hostages jumped out of the car and made a break for it. Rideau panicked and squeezed off several shots, striking two of the hostages. He caught the third and stabbed her in the chest. News accounts of the story say Rideau also cut the woman's throat, a claim he vehemently denies.

All-white, all-male juries convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death in three separate trials, twice in the 1960s and once in 1970. But each time the verdict was thrown out on appeals, the courts citing misconduct by the government.

As the appeals process wore on, Rideau remained on death row, where he came to the conclusion that he wanted to be a writer.

"I was a fairly good observer of human nature and figured maybe I could explain things that puzzled people about criminal behavior," he said.

Rideau remained on death row until 1972, when the United States issued a moratorium on executions. His death sentence was then commuted to life in prison.

Off of death row he continued to write. First he started an underground prison magazine called 'The Lifer,' which the administration quickly shutdown. Then he became editor of the 'Angolite,' the first black editor of a prison publication in the country. At that time there were few, if any, black editors editing publications outside of the black press.

While in prison, he eventually became a correspondent for NPR's 'Fresh Air,' appeared on ABC's 'Nightline' and co-directed a couple documentaries, including 'The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.,' which was nominated for an Oscar.

Rideau was released in 2005 after a fourth trial, where a mixed-gender, mixed-race jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. He was released on time served after spending 44-years in prison.

Last year he released a critically acclaimed memoir, 'In the Place of Justice,' published by Knopf, and he also writes the occasional column and book review.

In 2008, he married Linda LaBranche, a former college professor who first saw him on a television program 25 years ago and ultimately joined the fight to free him.

But of all the awards and accolades, he said, being honored with the George Polk award after all these years is perhaps most special.

"One of these days you're going to be old," he said, "and really thrilled when someone reaches back and remembers you."

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