Famed Ex-Editor Wilbert Rideau Of the Angolite Magazine Pays San Quentin News a Visit
A man considered America’s most-honored prison journalist says the print media plays an important role informing the public and acting as watchdog of prisoner rights and administrative responsibilities.
After corresponding with Wilbert Rideau’s wife Linda LaBranche, San Quentin News adviser Lizzie Buchen arranged for Rideau to visit the San Quentin News office. San Quentin’s Public information officer Lt. Sam Robinson secured approval and accompanied Rideau into the prison.
The San Quentin News has the responsibility to help prisoners and the public to understand what is right and what is wrong with prisons, said award-winning journalist and author Wilbert Rideau, whose writings inspired other prison journalists.
Rideau was editor of “The Angolite,” the prisoner-produced magazine at Angola State Prison in Louisiana.
Beginning in 1961, Rideau spent 44 years in Angola in Louisiana for killing a bank teller in a moment of panic and was sentenced to death at the age of 19.
After spending the first 12 years on Death Row, Rideau’s sentence was commuted to life.
Following decades of legal battles, Rideau was released from prison in 2005.
While on Death Row, Rideau became a prolific writer defining his surroundings in an inimitable voice. In 1975, Rideau became a staff writer, then editor of The Angolite. Under Rideau’s editorship, the publication won many awards, among them the American Penal Press Award.
“The Angolite enjoyed freedom to investigate and criticized prison management, policies, and practice, but it wasn’t always easy,” Rideau said,
Both the San Quentin News and The Angolite at times have been asked by the prison’s administration not to print specific articles that may be inflammatory by making a reasonable case not to do so.
San Quentin News Managing Editor Juan Haines said, “As journalists, we have a responsibility to our readers and the public to report news that will not put people in harm’s way, under the circumstances of imprisonment.”
Haines and Rideau agreed that prison journalists have a duty to write about issues such as living conditions, prisoner’s due process rights, medical/psychiatric care, and policy. They believe issues covering both good and bad circumstances should be covered as much as possible.
In his memoir, In The Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, Rideau wrote “…every aspect of prison life is serious business.”
A “New York Times” book review said of Rideau’s memoir, “Candid…Rideau is the rarest of American commodities – a man who exited a penitentiary in better shape than when he arrived.”
Rideau has been referred to as “The most rehabilitated man in America,” by former Warden of Angola State Prison C. Paul Phelps
The Angolite was one of five finalists in the category of special journalism for the 1978 National Magazine awards, administered by the Columbia School of Journalism, the highest honor for the nation’s magazine industry.
Rideau said his goal was to offer a broader perspective by writing about prison matters that goes beyond what is proffered by prisoners and the prison’s administration. Some articles simply cannot be written accurately by outside journalists, he said.
Despite the fact that he was in prison, Rideau was a correspondent for NPR’s Fresh Air; coproduced and narrated a radio documentary, Tossing Away the Keys, for NPR’s All Things Considered. He is the recipient of a George Polk Award. Since his release in 2005, Rideau was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2007 and works as a consultant with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.
Rideau was awarded The American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award in 1979 for “outstanding contribution to public understanding of the American system of law and justice.” It marked the first time in the ABA’s 100-year history that it had so honored a prisoner. He also received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
With the blessing of the late warden Phelps, Rideau ventured into filmmaking with his documentary on Angola State Prison titled The Farm, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the best feature-length category. He wrote and produced Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James. After producing the film, Rideau said inexplicably he was only given the minimal credit line “Story by Wilbert Rideau.”
“These [awards] were life changing events for me,” explains Rideau. “They marked the first time in my life that I had been publicly patted on the back for having done something good.” He attributes the opportunity to make the most of his writing gift to Warden Phelps, who he refers to as “My mentor and friend.”
Rideau participated in comparative conversation with San Quentin News staff relative to Louisiana and California’s penitentiary rules and policies. He shared information on everything from publishing, journalistic access and censorship, to groups and organizations allowed behind the walls.
Rideau said dozens of groups at Angola; referred to as “franchises,” raise funds which they spend as they see fit. That includes money to charities and purchasing parole clothes for men.
San Quentin has more active programs than any of the other 32 prisons in the state. Rideau said those serving time here are fortunate to have access to such programs and encouraged participation. “This not only allows for a constructive outlet,” he added, “These programs benefit the prison in many ways.”
At 71, Rideau travels around America speaking not only on matters important to prisoners. He also peels the layers of dense cover off of issues such as censorship, media access behind bars, prison politics, and administrative problems where they exist.