Words helped set him free

August 07, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,From "Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars."Book Editor

Arlington, Va. -- When you've killed a man and then spent almost half your life behind bars, when, long ago,you had stopped thinking about ever getting out of one of the toughest state prisons in the country, hope is not often on the ticket. But Ron Wikberg has been a free man since his release in June from Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary, and he is embracing this time as only those who have been denied their liberty can do.

"It was a total assault on all my senses -- what I saw, what I heard, what I touched, what I felt," he says. "Everything was new, different in prison. But I haven't had time to reflect upon it because I've been so busy. And because of the goodness and kindness of friends and supporters, the transition to the free world has been easy. Even the corrections department has been great by allowing me to travel out of state."

As co-editor of the Angolite, the award-winning magazine written by Angola inmates, Wikberg had examined prison life from the inside, writing powerfully about what he calls "a very abnormal, aberrant society." The magazine's vivid prose has won praise from quarters such as crime-novel master Elmore Leonard, and many of the Angolite's articles have been reprinted by Time Books in the recently published "Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars."

Working at the Angolite had another fortuitous twist; through his association with it, he met a woman from Frederick County whom he will marry shortly. She had called the prison in 1988 to get information about an old friend whom she had learned was in Angola. A prison official suggested she contact the Angolite; she and Wikberg began a correspondence that developed into a friendship and then more. (The woman, expressing professional and familial concerns, asked that her name not be published).

Wikberg, a tall, powerfully built man, animated in his conversation, acknowledges that some will always doubt that any man who has taken another's life can be rehabilitated.

"That's not the way many in society are thinking these days," he said Wednesday in an interview while on a publicity tour for the book. "Why did I do what I did? I've been asked that question many times, and there are not many answers. All I can say is that Ron today is not the same Ron of 23 years ago."

The Ron of 1969, he says, was a reckless and irresponsible man who "did not care about people, and he did not care about people's property." A native of Chicago, he dropped out of school at 17 to join the U.S. Army. He was stationed at Fort Polk, La., when one day he went out with a fellow soldier and another accomplice to stick up a grocery store in nearby Lafayette.

It wasn't the first time: Wikberg had done two previous holdups, in California and New Mexico. But he had never shot anyone and he had never been caught. This time, he tried to rob a place that had been robbed several times in the past year: The store's owner fired four shots at Wikberg and his accomplices. Wikberg fired one shot back from a .38 derringer. The bullet hit the man in the arm, then traveled to his chest.

He died eight hours later.

Months later, Wikberg was escorted into Angola State Penitentiary, almost sure that, at 26, his life was basically over. Facing him was a sentence of life in prison at hard labor.

At the time, few places were harder than Angola. Stabbings and murders were common (40 inmates were killed from 1972 to 1975, according to prison statistics), and homosexual rape was rampant. "For the first four or five years I was there, there were stabbings and killings -- a lot of bloodshed," Wikberg says. "You became a defensive driver. You spent so much time watching the other guy that you had very little time to work on improving yourself. A wrong look at a guy could get you killed."

He turned to various ways of dealing with life in Angola, including reading a book a day and dabbling in writing. He was asked to contribute to the Angolite in 1971 and in 1987 became co-editor with Wilbert Rideau, now a close friend who also has a life sentence for murder.

The magazine took on any number of topics, including the death penalty, prisoners for life ("The Long-Termers"), homosexual rape and the state's official executioner. The material is raw and vivid, but the writing style is low-key, almost deadpan.

One fan of the Angolite is Edgar Award-winning crime novelist James Lee Burke, a long-time resident of Louisiana who knows the prison's reputation well. "I'm real impressed with [the magazine]," he says from his home in Montana. "It's objective, hard-nosed, and the prose is well written. It's extremely professional and the use of monologues of the inmates is masterful.

"Angola has a macabre history, and those fellas really have to be admired for the way they treat that history with such clarity and accuracy."

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