I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A few times a year, the inmates in a Louisiana prison are allowed to let off steam to relieve the crushing boredom of life behind bars by holding a rodeo. It can mean a brief moment of glory or a trip to hospital to set broken bones.
Nobody wants to be sent to Angola Penitentiary. It is filled with murderers, armed robbers, and rapists, and as James Ridgeway points out in Mother Jones magazine, “More than 90 percent of the 5,200 [now 6,300 after the closure of another prison] men in Angola will die there, thanks to the state's harsh sentencing policies.” In Louisiana, a life sentence is for life, so only about 10 percent of Angola’s inmates leave the institution in anything other than a body bag or coffin.
Angola's Violent Reputation
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has been called the Alcatraz of the South. It is a maximum-security jail with an 18,000-acre farm (that’s bigger than the island of Manhattan) attached to it. Ridgeway writes that the farm used to be a slave plantation and that the prisoners are forced into “backbreaking labour in the cotton, corn, and soybean fields, presided over by armed guards on horseback.”
With prison labour costing a few cents an hour, this is about the last place in the United States where cotton is hand-picked. After watching the prisoners working in the fields, an observer commented that nobody “can think it is a soft regime.”
Writing in The Observer, Paul Harris notes that, “Angola has always been famed for brutality, riots, escape, and murder.” It’s also the place where Louisiana’s death row inmates spend their time waiting for their execution day to come up on the calendar.
In The Times, Martin Fletcher describes Angola’s horrific past: In the early days, “convicts . . . were so brutally abused that between 1870 and 1900 3,000 died. Many were buried in the levees they were building along the Mississippi . . . In the 1930s guards inflicted thousands of floggings on prisoners. In 1951, 31 convicts cut their Achilles tendons in protest at their appalling treatment.”
Gangs pretty much controlled the institution as recently as the mid-1970s with 40 inmates being murdered between 1972 and 1975.
However, Angola’s miserable reputation has improved; conditions inside the prison have become better since 1995 when Warden Burl Cain arrived with a management approach that relies heavily on Christian salvation.
But, Warden Cain is no longer in charge; he “retired” in December 2015 under a cloud. As noted by The New Orleans Advocate, Mr. Cain’s tenure was marked “by scandals involving his side business deals, most of which have been intertwined with his public position and many of which have depended on inmate labour.”
Rodeos Held Inside the Prison
In 1965, prison workers and inmates got together to organize a fall rodeo; astonishingly, the event was given the go-ahead by the prison administration.
In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Reynolds writes that “Two years later, authorities opened the rodeo to outside spectators, who sat on apple crates. Pretty soon, the prison put up bleachers, adopted the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules, brought in professional stock animals and clowns and added an arts-and-crafts festival.”
Now, a spring rodeo has been added and a series is held on every Sunday in October. Inmates can also sell their crafts, such as snakeskin wallets, jewelry, and paintings to the public.
Inmates Court Danger
There’s bronco and bull riding, but there are also a couple of events not seen at regular rodeos:
- Convicts’ Poker has four prisoners sitting at a card table when a bull, released from its pen, charges; the last player sitting wins the prize of $200 or $300;
- Guts or Glory is described by Martin Fletcher in The Times: “About 50 inmates will vie to pluck a $600 (£305) poker chip from between the horns of a rampaging 2,000 lb bull.” Some convicts get tossed and others are trampled; the first aid station is kept busy.
Even among professional rodeo contestants, there are occasional fatalities, but the Angola Prison says nobody, despite the fact that all participants are amateurs, has been killed during their events. Broken bones and concussions have led to the adoption of helmets and mouth guards.
Bumps, Bruises, and Breaks
Exploitation or a Taste of Freedom?
Only about 20 percent of Angola’s prison population is eligible to participate. These are the prisoners who have displayed good behaviour over a period of time and have earned the status of “trustee.”
Gary Young is an assistant warden. He says that taking part in the rodeo and craft fair is “a behavioural tool for us. We extract an awful lot of good behaviour” in exchange for a booth.
The inmate volunteers who do take part in the event see it as a welcome release from the boredom and anonymity of prison life. For a short spell, a convict who has never had anything good happen in his life can be a hero in front of a crowd.
Others see it as exploitation of vulnerable people for the entertainment of the crowd. As one spectator told the BBC, “It’s dangerous for them. But, they’ll tell you they have nothing to lose.”
Inmate Aldrie Lathan says he takes part for money. When talking to a reporter, he said “After you get hit by a bull one time, you know what it feels like and you don’t have that fear anymore.” They are tough people inside Angola.
- Caddo Parish is in Shreveport, Louisiana. Juries in the parish sentence more people to death on a per capita basis than any in any other county in the United States. Those convicts are overwhelmingly Black and they are sent to Angola Prison to await their execution. Caddo Parish juries have never sentenced a White person to death for killing a Black victim.
- The fact that 75 percent of Angola’s inmates are Black has given rise to it being called a “modern-day slave plantation.”
- In 1992, there were 1,346 assaults in Angola Prison. In 2015, after 20 years of Burl Cain’s use of religion to bring peace to the place, there were 343 assaults.
- Angola is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, and it serves Louisiana, the state that imprisons more people on a per capita basis than any other.
- “God and Man at Angola Prison.” James Ridgeway, Mother Jones, January 7, 2010.
- “America’s Hell-hole Jail Finds God - and Redemption.” Paul Harris, The Observer August 29, 2004.
- “Buck the Norm with a Trip to the Angola Prison Rodeo.” Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2009.
- “Death Row Rodeo: the Louisiana Prison Miracle.” Martin Fletcher, The Times, May 1, 2008.
- “Fall of Burl Cain: How 1 Last Side Deal Led to Angola Warden Undoing.” Gordon Russell and Maya Lau, New Orleans Advocate, December 15, 2015.
- “Angola Prison Rodeo Offers Risks and Rewards for Louisiana’s Hard-knock Lifers.” Aviva Shen, The Guardian, October 29, 2016.
- “Revenge Killing.” Rachel Aviv, New Yorker, July 2015.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 17, 2017:
Thanks for bringing this prison and its rodeo activities to our awareness. Thanks also for including the video which I haven't watched as yet, but I expect will give some more details.