Reforming Prisons from the Inside

Like most speakers, Wilbert Rideau began by telling the audience at the Skirball Cultural Center that he was glad to be there.

But, Rideau, who spent 44 years in Louisiana State Pententiary, added, “No one has ever meant it more than I do.”

Rideau, author of In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, talked about his time running the country’s only uncensored prisoner-run publication, and explained why lifting censorship is the single most important prison reform.

Prison is hell

“Prison is hell, if by hell we mean a place of discord, brutality, and chaos, of always wanting and never having,” Rideau said, quickly adding, “Of course, it’s not meant to be a picnic.”

Rideau was sent to Angola after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death. “I did something very stupid,” Rideau said. “I thought I could solve all my problems in life by robbing a bank. It was the dumbest thing in my life, the darkest moment of my life, one which I will never stop regretting because somebody died.” Rideau, who had dropped out of school in 8th grade, ended up facing an all-white jury with a pair of real estate lawyers who didn’t call any witnesses on his behalf or make a case. Rideau spent most of his life in Angola prison, long known as the most brutal maximum security prison in the country.

“It was a jungle in which the weak either perished or served the strong,” Rideau said. Rape and sexual enslavement were common and “enslavement brought a kind of order to the chaos.” Death happened with the tacit consent of the prison administration. At some point the consent was more than implied – prison authorities once gave guns to a few prisoners, all convicted murderers, and granted them the authority to shoot to kill, Rideau said. “Inmate-on-inmate violence was institutionalized.” From 1972 to 1975, he said, 67 inmates were stabbed to death while hundreds suffered wounds.

Rusty tomatoes

Audience for Wilbert Rideau. Though Angola has improved today, Rideau said, prison authorities across the country still fail to protect America’s two million inmates from abuse, rape and violence. The reason for this, Rideau argued, is secrecy – the lack of freedom for inmates and staff to talk about what’s going on in prison to those outside prison. “Our nation’s penal institutions are cloaked by official censorship,” he said. The usual justification for secrecy in prisons is security, though Rideau argued that there is no evidence that open expression makes prisons less secure.

For 20 years, while Rideau was at Angola, the prison lifted its censorship rules. Prisoners were allowed confidential mail communication with members of the mainstream press and government agencies, allowing any inmate to blow the whistle on abuse or wrongdoing without fear of reprisal. One prisoner, Rideau recalled, shut down a business that forced inmates to scrub rust off outdated cans of tomatoes headed to grocery stores. Any of Angola’s 5,000 prisoners or 2,000 employees could report such problems. It was, Rideau said, “what today might be called an oversight commission.”

The Angolite

In addition to free expression, Angola allowed a free press – The Angolite, a bimonthly news magazines staffed by self-taught inmate journalists. Staffers were allowed to publish any story as long as it was free of libel and slander, and could be verified. “This unique freedom didn’t spring from the breast of some progressive judge,” Rideau said. “This free press blossomed in the bowels of a monster.” Angola, then the toughest and most violent prison in the nation, was under court order requiring prison authorities to end rape, murder, and gang warfare in the prison.

Angola’s warden at the time, C. Paul Phelps, had admired Rideau’s writing and asked him to be editor of The Angolite, promising no censorship. “He changed my life and made possible everything good and productive that I was later able to do in prison,” Rideau said. Phelps thought a free press could do in prison what it did outside – be a credible source of information for everyone and delegitimize rumors. Phelps found secrecy – and the attitude of many prison employees that inmates don’t deserve explanations – counterproductive. “If you don’t have dentures or underwear to give an inmate, what’s wrong with telling him that?” Rideau said. “Telling him that you don’t have it to give, and that you’re not just being mean to him? That would be a plus.”


Guests at the reception for Wilbert Rideau.While lifting censorship was a bold move, Rideau said, “Freedom from censorship, whether inside prison or out, is meaningless if you don’t understand the forces that drive your world.” Rideau worked with Phelps to understand prison operations, even participating in staff meetings “to the surprise and dismay of some.” It was crucial, Rideau said, for getting a perspective deeper than that of either “the typical inmate who sees prison only through the narrow lens of his own pain” or the guard who has never been incarcerated.

Angolite staffers also had access to all records and data about the prison, except for sensitive security material and private information about prisoners or employees. They were given telephones, tape recorders, and cameras. When one employee complained that prisoners could take photos of employees “doing something that would embarrass the prison,” Rideau said, Phelps gave them telephoto lenses.

Staffers also had unfettered communication with news media and public officials. They could travel unshackled to other penal facilities, and travel with chaperones to cover criminal justice related events and conduct interviews. Though some balked at answering questions from prisoners, and though some fellow prisoners saw them as “sellouts”, Rideau said, eventually the magazine was a success. The magazine won many awards, entered curricula for prison training and university students, and branched into broadcast journalism. “We became so respected in our world that people wanted to be in The Angolite in much the same that people here might want to be in the Los Angeles Times,” Rideau said.

Walls, fences, towers

The Angolite brought clear improvements to the prison. It improved safety, dispelled rumors, and educated and humanized those who lived and worked inside. Employees and prisoners gained an understanding of each other. Thanks to The Angolite’s work, deaf inmates had access to interpreters, sick and elderly inmates were released, rape and enslavement were no longer seen as acceptable behavior, Louisiana’s prison medical care improved statewide, and the state switched its method of execution. “Our prison fences didn’t fall. The guard towers remained in place. And the absence of censorship caused no deaths, no escapes, and no disturbances during that 20 year period,” Rideau said. “The wall of censorship around this nation’s prisons, like so many other walls in the world, is unnecessary.”

If it were any other public institution, Rideau said, secrecy would not be tolerated. Where prisons are concerned “the news media and the public get distracted from official rhetoric that prisoners don’t have rights, or that some mysterious security need would be jeopardized.” But, Rideau argued, censorship improves prison security and operations, bringing accountability to the institution. “Unchecked, arbitrary power exercised in secret over a generally despised class of people is a recipe for abuse, brutality, and worse,” Rideau said.

Nice little ego trip

Guests at the reception for Wilbert Rideau.After the 20 years, a new warden shut down The Angolite. Shortly after, Rideau was released from prison. On a retrial, a mixed-race jury found him guilty only of manslaughter, for which he had more than twice served the time. He had no money and no place to stay when he was released. His time in the cell, Rideau said, “introduced me to the concept of reading just to kill time.”

He became a writer and speaker, arguing for lifting prison censorship as the best means to reform. He also spoke against keeping prisoners incarcerated too long – a costly and ineffective way to punish – and the lack of opportunity for inmates after their release, even those who are exonerated. “You bitch and moan about recidivism, but when a guy comes out, he has no way to earn money,” Rideau said. “Once they get desperate they resort to what they know best. Their whole attitude then is, ‘Hey, we enemies.’ You’re you and they’re them.”

“I’m not complaining,” Rideau said repeatedly, smiling. “You have to understand, I talk to lawyers. They got plenty of education. Here I am, 8th grade,” he said. “It’s cool. It’s a nice little ego trip. And they listen to me too.”

Watch the video here.
Watch a highlight clip here.
See more photos here.
Read Rideau’s In The Green Room Q&A here.
Buy the book here.
Read an excerpt here.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.


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