Life (and faith) after Death Row

By Wilbert Rideau People come to faith by many paths. Some people see in the beauty of a rainbow or … Continued

By Wilbert Rideau

People come to faith by many paths. Some people see in the beauty of a rainbow or in the wonder of earth’s ecosystem evidence of an intelligent design that binds color to color and the life of the teeming seas to the heavens they reflect. Others come to faith through friendship and love, by which they apprehend the brotherhood of man. Compassion carries still others to an understanding that, but for the accident of their birth or the grace of God, the suffering they seek to relieve in others could as easily be their own.

For me, the journey to faith was a long, slow walk. Although I was raised a Catholic, I found little in my early life to suggest to me there was a force greater than the racially segregated and oppressive society I grew up in. I didn’t feel enough love in that world to offset the pain of poverty, rejection, and the social isolation I felt. I dropped out of school when I entered the ninth grade, confirming for myself that I was an outsider, an outcast. This sense of alienation from my fellow man made me extremely dangerous.

My connection to humanity began on Death Row, where I was sent in 1962 for killing bank teller Julia Ferguson. There, I began to read just to pass time, to ward off the maddening monotony of life in a small cell, and to keep from having to think about the future that awaited me – death in the electric chair. But as I read – a book or more a day – I slowly began to emerge from my self-centeredness and realized that all people suffer frustration or misfortune of some sort, that everyone has dreams and aspirations, and that pain and joy are the common currency of human life. In short, I developed empathy, which made me see myself, my horrible crime, my victim, and my own family in a new light. As I awaited my 1970 retrial, I wrote a book-length manuscript trying to explain criminality to society as a way to try to repay, in some small measure, my irrepayable debt.

After I was released from Death Row, I became editor of The Angolite, the inmate-produced publication of the Louisiana State Prison. C. Paul Phelps – the warden and Louisiana secretary of corrections – was a remarkable man who allowed me to practice uncensored journalism behind bars, which was unprecedented in America. He also tutored me not only in prison management but in morality. He taught me that along with the power he had conferred on me came the responsibility to act in the interest of those who were weak and powerless.

As I and my staff wrote articles that helped bring safety and reform to what was then one of the bloodiest prisons in America, I came to feel the deep satisfaction that comes from helping others. With that, I learned that a sense of well-being comes not from awards or accomplishments but from belonging and contributing. For the first time in my life I saw I was connected to others in a way that gave my life meaning and purpose. I was part of something larger than myself.

When I found love, I finally knew I was connected to the whole, the animating life force that goes by different names in various faith traditions: God, in the Judeo-Christian tradition; the Great Incomprehensibility, in the Sioux tradition; Interbeing, in Buddhist tradition. It seems to be an inherent part of our make-up as human beings to need to believe in something that tells us, when we look in the mirror, that we matter.

Through faith, we understand ourselves to be a meaningful part of something larger than ourselves. But belief alone is not enough. As the poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran asked, “Who can separate his faith from his actions?” In other words, faith has to be more than lip service; it has to be actions that speak louder than words.

Since his 2005 trial and release after 44 years in prison, former Angolite editor and award-winning journalist Wilbert Rideau has continued to devote himself to educating people about the realities of the world behind bars.

Here is an excerpt from my book “In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance”

Setting: Calcasieu Parish jail, Lake Charles, Louisiana, late 2004, as I awaited the retrial that would set me free with a verdict of manslaughter, after I had served nearly 44 years in prison, convicted originally of murder for the 1961 death of Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery.

“As things continued to go against us, I wondered, in the solitude of jail, why I had previously been rescued from the forces in Calcasieu that had tried to hard, so many times, to kill me. I had long since come to believe that I had been saved too many times to chalk it up to chance. Who would have thought that a bankruptcy and real estate lawyer would have hit upon an issue of interest to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1961 and that my case–over all others presenting the issue of pretrial publicity–would have been selected for review? And who would have thought after my second trial, as I waited on death row, that the Supreme Court would make a ruling in an Illinois case that would give me a new trial? And who would have guessed that after my third trial the U.S. Supreme Court would have, seemingly out of the blue, abolished the death penalty as it was then applied? And how could a man who had served forty years on a murder conviction get a federal court to set aside that conviction because the system used to select the grand jury that returned the indictment in 1961 was unconstitutional? All of this, together, led me to believe that a higher power than man was at work in my life. Now, lying on my bunk, I wondered: What if I had been saved only to portray prison life from the inside and never to go free? Everything in me cried out that there had to be more than that for me, that Providence had not saved me for a purpose that would forever chain me to guard towers and locked gates.

“And yet, the judge and the prosecutor were making it almost impossible for us to mount a defense, moving us closer to yet another judicial lynching. I thought of everything I’d given up at Angola for what was my last shot at freedom. I was at the top of the pecking order in Angola’s inmate society. I had the best job in the prison, where I could weave meaning into my existence. I sat on boards of several inmates clubs, which expanded my ability to make a difference in the quality of prisoners’ lives. I was the president of the Human Relations Club, which enabled me to bring resources to bear to help elderly prisoners and hospice patients. I was one of a handful of inmate leaders who worked together for the good of the whole institution, inmates and staff alike, rather than for their own personal ends. We worked to keep peace and order in the prison, though this was sometimes misunderstood by inmates who saw Angola only through the narrow lens of their personal pain. And I had perks. I worked in an air-conditioned office rather than in the field. Even though my traveling was cut out and media access to me increasingly restricted and monitored after Burl Cain’s arrival in 1995, and even though The Angolite was increasingly censored, what I left behind at Angola was a relative paradise compared to what I could look forward to if we lost this trial. I had to believe Providence had something better in store for me.”

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