There’s an old Romanian proverb that says, ‘Every sin brings its punishment with it’. But does the punishment always fit the crime? And does our penal system strike the right balance between retribution and rehabilitation? This evening’s provocative and inspiring English PEN event, chaired by Rachel Billington, welcomed Wilbert Rideau and Erwin James – two men who, despite having served lengthy prison sentences for murder, each discovered extraordinary ways to gain a personal liberty though the power of words.
Louisiana in the 1960s: Wilbert Rideau was put on death row after killing a woman during a bank robbery. He went to Angola prison, the notorious state penitentiary, where he spent many years in solitary confinement. After 44 years in prison, Wilbert’s sentence was changed to manslaughter and he was finally released in 2005. According to Wilbert, there were 5,200 prisoners incarcerated in Angola when he was there – including around 4,000 for murder and 7-800 for sexual crimes. Over three years, 67 inmates were stabbed to death.
The prisoners were only allowed to read the Bible and other religious literature. ‘They got their missions confused whether it was a prison or a monastery,’ Wilbert said wryly. But then fellow inmates, and sometimes even prison guards, began to smuggle books for him. ‘I didn’t start off trying to educate, improve or change myself,’ Wilbert explained with his distinct southern drawl. ‘I was sitting in a cell alone: The only company is me. I was trying to find ways to kill time.’ But the power of reading began to overwhelm him and before he knew it he was spending all his time immersed in books. ‘The more I read, the more I learned. There’s a certain excitement to discovery. You’re in your cell and travelling across the world… you live in books. Most people find they were never as trapped in life as they believed they were.’
Erwin made a similar discovery. When, in 1984, he was convicted of murder, he said his life was such agony, he only felt relief to go to prison. ‘The first year was in Wandsworth prison – good old Wanno!’ he said almost affectionately. ‘They allowed six books a week. On Saturday morning we went to the prison library to pick the books. I read Babylon twice… I envied him on Devil’s Island, the freedom .Through reading I realised there was another world out there; my empty head became full of knowledge. It’s about choices – in prison you realise you had choice out there. I was sleeping on the streets on Farringdon Road [ironically, just where The Free Word Centre is located] and didn’t realise I had a choice.’
Both men discovered that reading can open up other options. ‘Why didn’t I see those options?’ Erwin asked. ‘That’s the whole point,” Wilbert replied. ‘If you don’t know them, they don’t exist. A lot of people are influenced by environment, need, poverty, lack of parenting, ‘Did you see the move Precious?’ he asked the audience. ‘Most of the guys I know, that’s their background just like Precious. Did she have choices?’ But, as Erwin pointed out, a tough life does not necessarily lead to a life of crime. ‘Nothing’s equal in life,’ Wilbert retorted. ‘Crime initially is not so much a matter of choice. Some individuals see no option in life.
‘You have to understand most of those guys came up like weeds. In the black community where I come from the father is often not around, there is no male role model, and mothers are usually teenagers. The primary transmitters of social values and morality are our parents. How can a kid who is a mother transmit values?’ Erwin agreed there is a ‘tragic irony’ associated with parenting. ‘My dad didn’t have a clue how to be a real dad; he had so many troubles of his own,’ he said. ‘Everyone is born loveable. But something happens from that little baby that we love and cherish.’
For Erwin, prison life was also tough. ‘I was at a high security prison. It was aggressive,’ he explained. ‘People didn’t believe we were any better than the crime that defined us.’ Gradually, he started to see a way to live in prison. He met a female psychologist who, after some years, persuaded him that he had, as he put it, ‘value’. He studied history, signed up for an Open University course and, in six years, had gained a degree. One day, in response to a letter he had written to The Guardian in an attempt to dispel the myth that ‘prison was a life of luxury’, the newspaper asked him to write an article about prison. This was to turn into a regular column called ‘A Life Inside’.
However, Erwin discovered that while the prison was keen to rehabilitate – they even funded his journalism course – the reaction to his achievement was surprising. One prison governor’s response to Erwin’s discovered talents as a writer was: ‘Fifty small nos or one no, it’ll always be no. I suggest you get another hobby.’ It was a pointed irony, then, when that same governor brought the deputy mayor to Erwin’s cell to show ‘a pocket of excellence’. This led Erwin to a depressing conclusion: ‘The guard was saying, we believe in rehabilitation but we’re not sure how rehabilitated we want them to be. There was, and is, a tokenistic nod to rehabilitation through education but on the whole the prison system is reluctant to promote or encourage real success.’ Coincidentally, it was the film Angola, co-directed by Wilbert, which had inspired Erwin when he was in prison. ‘The film had been Oscar nominated. I didn’t believe it, to be able to do something like that in prison,’ Erwin said. ‘Prisoners are failures; they’re never going to amount to much. I saw Wilbert and thought it’s doable. I had this fantasy to be a journalist, despite what prison is telling me. He showed me, inspired me.’
Wilbert had gained his own sense of freedom and empowerment when he became editor of The Angolite, the prison newspaper that believed in freedom of expression. ‘The warden had been the first person who had trusted me. He began reading my writing and really liked the fact I wanted to tell the truth,’ he explained. ‘Other prison officials wanted to keep everything secret. Why? Because things were so bad. If you expose all the horrors maybe people would want to change things. That’s how freedom from censorship was born.’
It was to have an incredible impact. In one issue, they published post-execution photographs. ‘It showed how the electric chair burned and mutilated a prisoner and that was instrumental in changes to the electric chair,’ Wilbert said. ‘That made news across the country. How else are you going to make your case? The only way to convince was to publish their photos. We want people to see what’s happening.’ Another time, they published information about a secret FBI investigation. ‘We got a copy that was not meant to be published. We were warned that we would get in trouble. The federal judge can ask, but what’s he gonna do about it… put me in prison?’ he asked with a laugh. ‘We published it. They had to spend millions to update the system… And I was right: there were no repercussions.’
Wilbert was passionate about the importance of rehabilitation, but understood that some people deem it ‘an insult to victims’. ‘I had done something devastating with permanent victims. If I could reclaim anything in my life it’d be that day,’ he said. ‘You can cry all the tears you want it ain’t gonna change it. You’re never going justify it to the victim and that’s understandable. Once you’ve disrespected someone’s life and peace they feel vindictive and that’s right.’
But he took issue with the penal system. ‘What you gonna do, kill every criminal? Don’t you want them to come out better than when they went in? It’s plain common sense! Punishment has its place but just remember, to punish someone you injure them and injury does not improve. You’ve got to try and improve these guys and get them to contribute to society. I spent 44 years in prison. All these guys did all sorts of things. I can tell you, I don’t know a single one who thought about the death penalty before they committed the crime. I think that’s the ultimate argument against the death penalty.’
One audience member, who teaches creative writing to young offenders at Feltham, asked what she should say to offenders who argue that they don’t have a choice. ‘You have to show the kids that there are options in life; there is a future for them,’ Wilbert said. ‘Catch a kid that doesn’t have a dream and they’re potentially dangerous. You’ve got to be able to get kids to dream because the nature of a dream is very simple – that tomorrow is better than today.’
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/sentencedwilbertrideau/