At a podium inside the Roosevelt Hotel last week, Wilbert Rideau, 69, stood before an audience of academics and journalists, as he prepared to deliver a speech more than three decades in the making.
“After 31 years they invited me back,” Rideau said. “They remembered me.”
Thirty-one years ago, while Rideau was serving a life sentence in prison for murder, he was awarded a George Polk Award for his work in journalism, one of the most coveted awards in the industry. He was not able to receive the award in person, until just last week.
Behind the podium, his shoulders slumped a bit, the way you’d expect an old prizefighter’s shoulders to slump. The long years showed in the specks of gray sprinkled throughout his mustache, and in the deep grooves in his face.
“When I won the George Polk Award in 1980, a reporter had to explain to me what it was,” Rideau said, the audience hushed. “It’s difficult to overstate what the award meant to me, a 9th grade dropout and self-taught journalist who had once sat on death row.”
In 1979 when the award was first announced, Rideau joined a distinguished cast of journalists to win that year, including reporters from ‘The New York Times,’ ‘The New Yorker’ and Ed Bradley from ’60 Minutes.’
Rideau was being honored for a series of essays he wrote entitled ‘The Sexual Jungle,’ an in-depth look at the paradigm of prison sex and the power it held behind bars. He interviewed the “slaves” who had been “turned out,” who were no longer considered men, but property. He interviewed rapists, other prisoners, prison guards and wardens.