Wilbert Rideau speaks of issues with penal system

St. Ambrose recently welcomed a unique guest to speak to the community on behalf of the Ubiquity of Work series. On April 5, Wilbert Rideau, a former inmate of The Louisiana State Penitentiary, discussed the issues associated with the penal system in the United States. The presentation entitled “Criminals: Why Can’t They Stay Out of Prison?” came from the rare perspective of a criminal who has experienced these issues first hand.

Rideau was tried and sentenced to death at 19 years old for robbing a bank and killing a bank teller. He served mainly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola Prison, for 44 years. He spent 12 of those years on death row and 11 in solitary confinement. During his imprisonment, he had four retrials. After a retrial in 2005, he was released from prison.

Rideau began his presentation by sharing a shocking statistic that the average cost to incarcerate a prisoner is $25,000 per year. That is three times more than the average cost to put a single student through school.

Then, he painted a picture about what his home environment was like when he was young. He admitted that it was common in his town for children, especially those who were minorities, to have neglectful parents. Rideau was one of those children. He compared himself and others in a similar situation to weeds.

“We grew up like weeds with little to no skills to make us responsible members of society,” Rideau said.

He explained that parents felt it was the responsibility of the church and the school to prepare children with such skills in that day and age.

Rideau went on to explain his demeanor, along with his friends’, when they were teenagers.

“I was one of them who felt we had nothing, or nothing to lose. We cared little about others and we cared little about ourselves. We were a walking time bomb,” he said.

Rideau explained that many criminals feel as though they are victims when they are convicted. He refuted the common misconception that most criminals feel a sense of remorse when they are detained. He said that many of those who have committed a crime feel as if life has yet to give them a fair chance. He also mentioned that he thought those feelings had much to do with the environment in which they grew up.

Later Rideau shared stories of men who turned their lives around during their time spent in prison. One friend of his earned a bachelor’s degree while he was serving time. That same man achieved a PhD when he was released and is now working as an assistant professor of sociology for a college in New York. Another became a successful lawyer.

Rideau was also someone who had a life-changing experience in prison. He claimed that his redeeming quality was learning the value in reading books.

“I believe in the power of reading. It will change you without even realizing it,” he said.

Rideau showed his disappointment in the fact that success stories of men who are incarcerated commonly go unnoticed by those outside of prison walls.

“Good behavior and success in prison is rarely considered newsworthy,” he said.

He concluded by expressing his concern for those who are released and given the chance to be members of society without the proper necessities to survive. He explained that most are given a bus ticket and only $100 to find food, clothing, and shelter. Rideau said that this is a common reason as to why many criminals end up in prison again because they only know how to operate in prison after spending so much time there. Many of them have no one available to teach them how to operate as law-abiding citizens again.

Rideau’s presentation provided St. Ambrose community members with the chance to see through the eyes of a criminal; a person one would rarely consider a victim. Time was allotted at the end of the night for discussion and questions for Rideau.

Afterward, he stood among students, faculty, and Quad City community members to introduce himself and sign his book for those who purchased one.

After his fourth retrial in 2005, Wilbert Rideau was released from prison after serving 44 years. During his lecture, Rideau explained the mentality of prisoners and what he experienced while in prison.

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