Inmate-writer is now outside

January 20, 1993|By Clyde Ford | Clyde Ford,Hagerstown Herald-Mail

ROHRERSVILLE -- Convicted murderer Ronald Wikberg approaches his freedom the same way he wrote the prison articles that have gained him national attention -- one sentence at a time.

Over the years, Wikberg and fellow prisoner Wilbert Rideau have written books, won journalism awards for their magazine stories, and helped co-author a textbook used to teach college students about the criminal justice system in Louisiana.

But it's "Life Sentences," a published collection of their prison magazine writings, that is being talked about on National Public Radio, written about in People magazine, and the New York Times.

Wikberg has appeared on NBC's "Today" show and anchor Peter Jennings of "ABC World News Tonight" visited Wikberg at his Washington County home and named him "Person of the Week."

Wikberg, who was convicted of fatally shooting a Lafayette, La., grocery store owner, has crisscrossed the United States for book-signing appearances.

Rideau, however, remains at the Louisiana State Prison, where he and Wikberg met more than 20 years ago while serving life prison sentences.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," Wikberg, 49, said of his life, which included 23 years behind prison bars.

In August, two months after his release, he married a Rohrersville woman, who had two sons from a previous marriage. Wikberg had corresponded with the woman for years and the long-distance friendship blossomed into something deeper.

"I have roots, a place to build from now," said Wikberg, who moved to Rohrersville, a town near Antietam, this summer. "I love this community. I love the mountains. People are very warm here."

Wikberg is adjusting to life outside the walls of the 18,000-acre prison that is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the fourth by hills infested with rattlesnakes.

Warden John Whitley said the book was something people can read to learn about prison life.

"I think their book is a good, honest, hard-hitting book," Whitley said.

Burk Foster, a professor of criminology at University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette, said the stories the inmates produced for the prison magazine were objective and well-researched.

Ruth Fecych, editor of the book, said more than 15,000 copies had been sold. She is a senior editor at Times Books in New York, a division of Random House.

"A lot of things are answered in 'Life Sentences' that aren't answered in outside journalism," she said. "It's very strong journalism."

Since his release, he has spoken to criminologists and bar associations about the U.S. prison system. He claims many people do not know about the many former inmates who now lead normal, productive lives.

"I am one of those success stories. And while I have to live with the knowledge I cost someone his life, I'm also proud of the fact that in addition to changing my life around, I've been able to help many people outside of prison and have helped prevent many juveniles from committing crimes and from becoming criminals themselves," Wikberg said.

Wikberg has expressed some definite ideas about what's wrong with the criminal justice system. He believes that people found guilty of crimes should not be sentenced to a certain number of years, but kept in prison until they are no longer criminals.

He also believes that many people sent to prison do not belong there. Instead of serving time, criminals who commit property crimes should be made to work and pay back their victims at double the amount stolen.

"I don't advocate closing down all prisons," he said. "We need prisons. Where would we be as a society without law and order? We have people in prisons who should be there the rest of their lives. But I do question, and I do take to task, the number of people we are putting in prisons today."

The United States has 1.3 million people in prison, more than any country in the world, including China and the former Soviet Union, he said.

"We are not blessed with inexhaustible resources and it's time for the general taxpayer to question where the money is going and why," he said.

"Taxpayers have the right to expect people getting out of prison to be better people than when they go in."

Rideau said in a telephone interview that's it's been difficult putting out the Louisiana State Penitentiary's award winning magazine since Wikberg was released.

"He was my right hand. I relied on him a lot," Rideau said. "I wish he was here. No, I don't wish he was here."

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