Wilber Rideau: Spared to Do Good

By Matthieu Ricard on November 05, 2011

The New York Times called Wilbert Rideau the ‟Most Rehabilited Man in the America”.
He was born into poverty and raised in Louisiana in a heavily racist environment. He was abandoned by his brutal father and his mother worked as a maid and later had to go on welfare. In 1961, when he was 19, Wilbert robbed a bank, hoping to steal enough money to start his life over in California. He took three bank employees as hostages and when they tried to escape, he recklessly shot them. Two survived, the woman died. His hostages were white. When he was arrested and brought to a local prison, a lynch mob of several hundred people awaited his arrival. He was lucky to make it through the night.

After a biased trial in which his defense team did not call a single witness, Wilbert was sent to America's most notorious prison, Angola, and spent twenty years on death row. His sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment without parole. After 44 years in prison, following a much awaited retrial, his crime was reduced from first degree murder to man slaughter, as it became clear that he acted without premeditation, and he was freed as he had done 20 more years than he would have got in the first place.

Rideau never denied his crimes, which still haunt him at all times. Even the more peaceful moments in his life bring back the painful memory of the irreparable harm he did. ‟No matter how much I say I am sorry, that is not going to bring my victims back to life. I have to live for two and do as much good as I can.”

Wilbert tried to live for more than two.

In the dreadful Angola prison, Wilbert Rideau became a reader, and then a writer. He eventually became the first black editor of a prison magazine in America, The Angolite, which, with the help of a few enlightened wardens, was also the first that was practically uncensored. The Angolite was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and Wilbert won a George Polk Award, one of the highest honors in American journalism

How did he changed?  In his word: ‟If you just hate yourself, you end up committing suicide. People don't change because of a magic touch. They grow. First I realized how much my actions had impacted my mother. Then it was just an extension of that to feel sorry for the family of the victim and then to others. I knew I was better than the crime I had committed. In America no one is trying to rehabilitate any body. You have to do it on your own. I don't know of any more powerful way to change people than education.”

Wilbert learned to completely turn away from violence: ”I was in one of the most violent prisons in the USA, but I managed to go through all these years without a single fist fight.  There are a few simple rules: you don't deal with dope and you don't get into activities that are ruled by violence.”

When asked by a BBC interviewer:
- ”Do you ever feel violence in you?”
- ‟No.”
- ‟Angry?”
- ‟I get pissed off, but not really angry.”

This would be more than welcome in most ‟ordinary” people.