Wilbert Rideau was imprisoned for 44 years at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary before he won his release in 2005. While he was in prison he was editor of The Angolite, a newspaper produced by inmates, and became an award-winning journalist. He received the George Polk Award for Special Interest Reporting in 1979 for his outstanding contributions to public understanding of the criminal justice and prison systems. More than three decades later, he will be honored today at the 62nd Annual George Polk Awards for journalists. "Back in 1979, the way [prison officials] portrayed sexual violence in prisons to the public was that this was something that was done by homosexuals," says Rideau. "And the sexual violence, what I did was essentially told what it really was. And it wasn’t the homosexual, it weren’t the gays; in fact, they were quite often victims. And it was the heterosexuals who were doing the raping and the violence and whatnot, and it was being done with the tacit approval of prison authorities." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We now are going to turn to one of your [George Polk Award] co-winners, Wilbert Rideau. He was in prison for 44 years at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary before he won his release in 2005. While in prison, he became editor of The Angolite, a newspaper produced by inmates. During his time at Angola, Rideau became an award-winning journalist. In 1979, he became the first prisoner ever to receive the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award for an investigative exposé, "Conversations with the Dead," that resulted in the release of a number of longtime prisoners lost in the Louisiana prison system. He also earned the George Polk Award for Special Interest Reporting in 1979 for his outstanding contributions to public understanding of the criminal justice and prison systems.
Well, 31 years later, Wilbert Rideau is in New York to accept that award in person. He’ll be honored today at the 62nd Annual George Polk Awards for Journalists. In March 1993, Life magazine called Wilbert Rideau "the Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America." His autobiography, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, was published last year. We are thrilled to have Wilbert Rideau with us.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
WILBERT RIDEAU: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here to be on Democracy Now! Or anywhere, for that matter.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about The Angolite, what you’re winning the George Polk Award for, this remarkable prison newspaper, how you did it in prison.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, I didn’t do it. It was something that happened that was unprecedented, because prisons nationwide operate under a veil of secrecy, absolute censorship. It’s the last feudal system in existence in America. And for a 20-year period, they lifted censorship. A corrections director named C. Paul Phelps, he — a remarkable visionary, he thought that censorship was causing more problems than it was worth, and he lifted censorship and gave — in a handshake, we agreed — he gave me freedom to operate a free press, to publish, investigate any story that I could substantiate, photograph anything, and travel throughout the state’s penal system to pursue stories. And that’s really why we ended up winning awards, because we had unique access to stories that normal journalists didn’t have.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how did you get involved with the paper to begin with?
WILBERT RIDEAU: Oh, that’s a long story. But the thing is, I was initially —- [cell phone rings] this happens, and I -—
AMY GOODMAN: Wilbert, you are redefining the cell phone.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Hey, I don’t even know much about it. But —
AMY GOODMAN: Feel free to pick it up. We’ll wait.
WILBERT RIDEAU: No, no, no. They need to learn —
AMY GOODMAN: To just watch Democracy Now!, and they’ll know that you’re on.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Yeah. Apparently they’re not watching this show.
But anyway, that enabled me to do some of the stories that we did. And for the George Polk Award, it was sexual violence. Back in 1979, prison authorities nationwide presented — the way they portrayed sexual violence in prisons to the public was that this was something that was done by homosexuals, and gay guys, they did this, you know, on innocent heterosexuals because, you know, they’re freaks or whatever. That’s the way they presented it, you know, and they said they couldn’t control that, because, by nature, these guys are criminal and whatnot. And the sexual violence, what I did was essentially told what it really was. And it wasn’t the homosexual, it weren’t the gays; in fact, they were quite often victims. And it was the heterosexuals who were doing the raping and the violence and whatnot, and it was being done with the tacit approval of prison authorities. I mean, they were doing it because you had massive slavery, and any time one segment of the prison population controls the other, you have a divided population, and you’ve made it quite easy for security to run the prison. And that’s what was going on, and that let the cat out of the bag, and they incurred the wrath of their fellow prison administrators around the country, who let them know they didn’t appreciate that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What was the reaction of the guards within the penal system to the fact that the authorities above them were giving you the opportunity to travel back and forth and interview people and write these articles?
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, initially, there was a certain amount of resistance. In fact, one time, the prison officials, they all went to the warden’s office and staged a little protest, that they didn’t feel it was right to have — to require them to answer questions from a prisoner. You know, this was beyond — you know, you shouldn’t do that. But he stood his ground and said that, you know, we’re going to be a real press. We’re going to — you know, The Angolite was going to cover the community, both inmate and employees, just like the New York Times covers New York.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute, but as you wrote your book In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, what is your assessment of the prison system today?
WILBERT RIDEAU: It’s not a prison system; it’s an industrial complex. That’s what it’s become. It’s no longer about — I mean, the people believe that it’s crime and punishment. It’s not. It’s about power. It’s about money. It’s about politics. It’s about prejudice. And you — every society needs law and order in order to function; you can’t do without it. But you don’t need this monster that you’ve created. And the best — the most profound impact, the most profound reform will ever be made in prison will be to lift censorship. Once you do that, you’ll see a dramatic change in things.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, lift censorship?
WILBERT RIDEAU: Well, you automatically create — right now, you only know what prison authorities let you know. You have to take their word for the fact that, oh, our prisoners are well, the prison is being run well. That’s like asking a dictator, you know, what is your regime like? What is he going to tell you? But once you remove censorship, what you’ve done is you’ve empowered the prisoners and the employees to, you know, all be more or less participants in an oversight committee. In our prison, there was, what, 7,000 people: 5,000 prisoners, 2,000 employees. And they could call anybody they wanted to. As long as somebody was willing to pay the charges, every inmate could pick up the telephone, call collect to Democracy Now!, New York Times, or any other place and say, "Hey, look, this guy is raping this guy next to me. Or this guy" — that works. You’ll be surprised how quickly they clean up their act.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Wilbert Rideau, we thank you very much for being with us. Congratulations to both you and Juan on the George Polk Award.
WILBERT RIDEAU: Thank you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Congratulations.
AMY GOODMAN: Wilbert’s book is called In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance.
Juan and I will be co-hosting Democracy Now! tomorrow from Boston from the National Conference on Media Reform. You can go to our website at democracynow.org. We hope people who are going there will watch the live broadcast at 8:00. I’ll be speaking today at the Harvard Faculty Club on Quincy Street in Cambridge at 4:30 today — again, go to our website — and the Green Fest in San Francisco on Sunday. Sharif Abdel Kouddous will also be speaking at the conference.