ONE MORNING this summer, Wilbert Rideau was awakened in his New York City hotel room by a ringing phone. The previous evening he’d requested a wake-up call from the front desk, and now a woman’s voice on the line informed him that it was time for him to get up. He thanked her and, since she sounded so pleasant, asked how her morning was going. Only after several failed attempts at conversation did it dawn on him he was talking to a recording.
That afternoon, when he recounted the incident to a roomful of criminal justice advocates at a meeting of the Open Society Institute, the audience chuckled appreciatively. Rideau shook his head. His story’s moral was a sobering one: In big ways and small, communication on the outside was turning out to be a lot more daunting than he’d imagined during his time behind bars.
Before his release last January, Rideau had spent more than 40 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, serving a life sentence for stabbing a bank teller to death during a botched robbery. His incarceration might be construed as a testament to the efficacy of the penal system: He went in a killer at age 19 and emerged remorseful and redirected. In 1993 Life magazine called him “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.”
Also, perhaps, the most celebrated. After teaching himself to read in prison, Rideau began penning articles, developed a reputation as a writer, and eventually edited The Angolite, a prison magazine that won national accolades — including a George Polk Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award — for exposing prison abuses. Rideau coproduced acclaimed television and radio documentaries, and was feted, profiled, and championed.
Then, in January of this year, he gained a new trial on the murder charge. The first three verdicts had been thrown out because of racial bias in jury selection — a significant factor, considering that Rideau is black and the woman he killed was white — and other government shenanigans. This time, the jury found him guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years. He was released for time served.
Sixty-three years old, his hair streaked with gray, Rideau is just getting started at an age when many folks are easing into retirement. He faces the daunting odds of any ex-con: “I have no Social Security, no retirement pension,” he told his Open Society audience. “I don’t even think I qualify for unemployment.” Jobs for convicted felons — even famous ones — are scarce, except that in Rideau’s case, he does have a profession. During his New York stay, he was talking to publishers about writing a book based on his life.
But any hopes Rideau might harbor of using the same journalistic skills that sustained him in prison to generate a livelihood outside of it have been severely diminished by his trial judge, who, in March, slapped Rideau with a $127,000 bill to cover the costs of the proceeding that freed him. “The judge threw that brick at me,” Rideau said. “But he threw it at my back.” The tab includes fees paid to expert witnesses, courthouse security, travel expenses for jurors, copying costs for jury questionnaires, and food for the jury and staff ($435.68 to Seafood Palace, $124.80 to Pappy’s, $396.90 to Steamboat Bill’s). Before the proceeding began, Rideau had offered to accept a man-slaughter charge rather than endure another court fight. The prosecutor declined. Now he’s being made to pay for the battle he offered to forgo. “I gotta pay for the meals the judge ate,” Rideau said. “He’s intent on making me an indentured servant to the court system for the rest of my life.” (The judge’s office did not return Mother Jones’ repeated calls for comment.)
The court, in essence, is forcing on Rideau a sort of practical censorship: He can write, if he wants, but he won’t as easily make a career by doing so. His profits, at least the early ones, will go to support the state. Rideau has appealed the order. In late June he filed for bank- ruptcy, though it’s unclear if even that recourse will change the order’s effect. On the day he addressed the Open Society Institute, he wore a pin in the lapel of his suit whose yellow and green letters, surrounded by red hearts, spelled out, “Expect a Miracle.” The way things are going, Wilbert Rideau may need one.