The NS Interview: Wilbert Rideau, former death row inmate

“I walked out of prison after 44 years. The world had changed”

You were imprisoned for killing a bank teller in the aftermath of a robbery. What struck you most when you were released?
In prison, you're in limbo, a timelessness. When I walked out, after more than four decades, the world had changed. Before I went inside, it was a racially segregated world. When I left, I found blacks operating cash registers and in positions of society that they were never allowed [to reach] before.

Did you pick up habits that are hard to shake?
In prison, you inspect your food before you eat it to make sure that there isn't anything in it that shouldn't be in it. I've been out for six years now and I still do it.

Did you always have faith that you'd get out?
Sometimes you did. Sometimes you'd despair. When I was on death row, for the first 12 years, I was certain that I was going to die. When the jury freed me, I was surprised.

Were you bitter about the 1961 trial?
Everybody assumed that I'd had a fair trial. I never had a trial at all; my lawyer didn't even call any witnesses. But that was just the way they did justice for blacks - arbitrarily. As soon as you know that, there's not much to be bitter about. Let's keep in mind, nobody had kidnap­ped me and dragged me to prison to hurt me. I went there because of my own mistakes.

You speak about the impact that the prison warden C Paul Phelps had on you.
The first person ever to trust me was the man who ran the whole prison system. It's a commentary on the sad state of affairs in America that I had to go to prison for someone finally to take an interest in me. What happened to the schools and the churches?

What turned your life around?
After I'd been on death row, I read an awful lot. I found hope in the stories I read about Malcolm X - a guy who'd turned his life around - and Mahatma Gandhi and the nameless English convicts who were exiled to Australia and built a nation. The same old, no-good, unsalvageable ex-cons! I thought: "If they could do it, then maybe I can do it: you're not lost."

Do people have misconceptions about prison?
One of the things that drove me to want to be a journalist was knowing how misinformed and ignorant the public was about prison. Reporting and analysing it gave me a purpose and allowed me to become someone with a mission.

You edited an uncensored prison newspaper. How did that begin?
When the warden took over, he thought that the prison was so horrific that if he exposed what was going on, the public might be moved to change things. So he gave freedom of expression to all employees and all prisoners. As long as we operated by the same ethical and legal standards as professional journalists, we could investigate anything. That was the best job I ever had. I loved it because we did a lot of good.

You had the support of ex-parole officers and wardens, yet it was decades before you were released. Why?
In part, it was because I'd become high-profile and my case had become a political football. And, in part, it was because - you have to remember this - in Louisiana, the criminal justice system is a very racist one. They'd been trying to kill me since 1961 and they hadn't succeeded. But that didn't mean they didn't want me to die in prison.

Should the death penalty be abolished?
I didn't know a single person, in my 44 years in prison, who ever thought about the prospect of being executed. There is no deterrent value. The death penalty only makes people who want someone dead feel good. It doesn't do anything for the crime problem.

Are you religious?
My experience with organised religion and its representatives has all been bad. But I'm a religious person. By any standard, I should have been dead a long time ago but I'm not. Nobody is that lucky. Nobody.

Was there a plan?
I'll never understand the things that have happened - how close I've come to the edges.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I'd like to undo the crime I committed a long time ago. You don't sweat the small stuff; it's just the big stuff you've got to worry about.

Do you vote?
I can't vote. In Louisiana, ex-prisoners are only allowed to vote if they pay their court costs. They hit me with $127,000 to be allowed to vote. I have appealed.

Are we all doomed?
Ultimately, we're all going to hell in a hand­basket because of failed leadership - political, religious and civic. Frustrated and desperate people are dangerous. I realise that I'm not a saint: I'm a sinner and I'm not supposed to throw stones. But that's my observation.

Defining Moments

1942 Born in Louisiana
1961 Kills bank teller Julia Ferguson after taking her hostage in a robbery. Sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury
1973 Sentence changed to life imprisonment in Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola
1976 Made co-editor of the Angolite, the only uncensored prison magazine in the US
2005 Freed after three retrials. Appeal court finds the first jury racially discriminatory
2010 Publishes memoir, In the Place of Justice.