Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author and Ex-Con Looks at Life through Iron Bars

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author and Ex-Con Looks at Life through Iron Bars

Article excerpt

FOR 20 YEARS, Ron Wikberg wrote about the darker side of human existence, about the "forgotten men" like James "Black Mattie" Robertson and Louis "Pulpwood" Ducre who had spent most of their lives behind the walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

He wrote about homosexual rape, prison suicide and what has become known as "the horror show," the electrocution of death row inmates in Louisiana's electric chair.

Wikberg, 50, co-author of the book "Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars," will be the keynote speaker at the second annual Millstone Lecture at St. Louis University School of Law. The lecture - Wikberg will actually give two of them - honors the memory of James C. Millstone, senior assistant managing editor of the Post-Dispatch. Millstone, who died of brain cancer last year, first reported on and then guided the coverage of the nation's justice system for the newspaper.

The lectures will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday in room 303 at the law school, 3700 Lindell Boulevard, and at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday in the school's first floor courtroom. Admission is free.

Sentenced to life in prison for the 1969 slaying of a Louisiana convenience store owner, Wikberg served 23 years in Angola before he was paroled last year.

He has since married, become the stepfather of two boys, moved into a 19th-century home in Maryland and battled cancer.

In between, he said, he goes to yard sales, takes long drives in the country and spends a lot of time "just looking at the mountains."

He also has created a nonprofit organization called the Juvenile Action Volunteer Alliance, designed to provide support to juveniles to keep them out of trouble.

As associate editor of The Angolite prison magazine, Wikberg and magazine editor Wilbert Rideau spotlighted what they saw as injustices within the state's prison system.

Their articles led to the parole of several inmates and are credited with helping force the state to change its method of executing inmates to lethal injection.

In a telephone interview from his home in Maryland, Wikberg said The Angolite staff was given complete freedom to write what they chose as long as it was true.

"Prison is not a democracy and here we were with cameras, zoom lenses and tape recorders, writing stories that were sometimes extreme embarrassments to the state and to the administration," Wikberg said.

"But the administration kept saying, `If you find something wrong, we'll fix it."

Early on, he said, the writers and editors of The Angolite were seen as lackeys of the prison administration.

"But after a while, they began to see that we were looking out for their best interests, that we were impacting the quality of their lives in areas like education and medical treatment," Wikberg said.

His decision to write an article about prison long-termers, he said, was an attempt to bring these men to the attention of the prison administration and the public. …

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