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Lara Naughton: America’s Prison Rodeo

In Louisiana, incarceration is a spectator sport.

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Image taken by Flickr user Emilio Labrador

By Lara Naughton

The Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana is the only still-operating prison rodeo in the world. The prison rodeo is distinctly American, distinctly Southern – there used to be prison rodeos in Oklahoma and Texas, but they shut down operation – so now it is distinctly Louisianan. Self-dubbed “The Wildest Show in the South,” the Angola Prison Rodeo is held inside the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the country, in the state with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. The prison itself is a sprawling 18,000-acre working farm on land that was formerly a slave plantation named for the homeland of its enslaved people. Today there are more than 6,000 inmates held in Angola, three fourths of them African American, making blatant the comparative relationship between slavery and modern day incarceration.

Many slaves, of course, died working the plantation. Many inmates have too. There are thousands of inmates at Angola who haven’t left the prison for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, and won’t. There are two kinds of death sentences up at Angola: execution or life without parole. At least three fourths of the incarcerated men are serving life sentences. Only twenty percent of countries in the world sentence people to life without parole; the United States is one of them. At Angola, the current number is staggering: approximately 4,500 people are spending the rest of their days and nights in prison without reprieve. Unbelievably, some of these sentences are for nonviolent crimes.

Short of overturning their conviction without a lawyer – because inmates serving life without parole are not entitled to a court-appointed appellate lawyer and most don’t have their own funds – there is no hope of ever getting out.

The rodeo grounds aren’t far from the prison’s death row, or the prison cemetery where many inmates are buried, holding them in Angola even after death.

I had heard and read a lot about the rodeo, my guess is most people in Louisiana have, though I’d avoided going for years. I even bought tickets several times but always found an excuse not to go. It was raining or I had a cold or whatever. The truth is, I was nervous to attend. I didn’t know what to make of this undeniably singular event, a rodeo run by inmates right on the grounds of a notorious prison. Prison as tourist attraction? Inmates as entertainment? Inexperienced “cowboys” facing bulls as sport?

I had heard how brutal the rodeo could be. Men square off against wild horses and angry bulls in contests that sound like they’re designed for failure and gore: Wild Cow Milking, Bust Out, Bull Riding, Bull Dogging, Convict Poker, and Guts and Glory. I’m admittedly sensitive to pain, mine and others, and I feared I’d witness a bloodbath. I didn’t want to see an inmate-contestant gorged, trampled, or worse, killed. It wasn’t improbable. Inmates aren’t just rodeo amateurs, they literally never train or practice for the events; it’s will over skill out there in the arena.

The rodeo opened to the public in 1967, and people come each year by the thousands. The current arena now seats 10,000 and was built in 2000 by inmates paid two cents an hour in order to accommodate the growing crowds that keep showing up for the semiannual event. Despite, or more likely because of, the rodeo being held inside a world-famous prison, it attracts up to 12,000 visitors and brings in nearly a half million dollars a day. Multiply that by every Sunday in October and the one weekend in April that the rodeo operates, and the numbers are impressive, or disturbing, depending on your perspective.

I certainly didn’t have to go, but I also felt drawn there. For one thing, I’ve spent years documenting the experiences of men who were wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn’t commit and incarcerated at Angola, often for decades, before they were exonerated. I’d been to Angola several times to tour the prison and visit the museum, but the rodeo seemed strangely both voyeuristic and a distortion of prison reality. Still, since it’s a huge part of the prison’s external relations, and a time honored event, I thought I should see what it was all about.

There was another reason for my ambivalence. As the victim of a violent kidnapping and rape, I’ve become interested in, even obsessed with, issues relating to criminal justice. My rape happened in another country and my rapist isn’t in jail, but I wonder about him and other people who commit crimes, including men at Angola: What chain of events led them to act out through violence? What does it mean to “pay” for a crime? How do incarcerated individuals fare in systems of corrections designed to punish rather than heal? What resources could, and should, society prioritize in order to both prevent crimes and help victims and offenders recover?

I believe it is my right as a victim that my offender gets well.

Since my rape, I’ve become perhaps an unlikely advocate for a more humane justice system, one primarily focused on rehabilitation and reconciliation rather than retribution. It is not comforting to me as a victim that people who commit crimes are tossed aside, removed sometimes permanently from their families, communities and country. I believe dignity, compassion and a sense of shared humanity should be the drivers of our justice system and sentencing practices. I’ve become a certified compassion cultivation trainer through the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University in order to be grounded in the science, psychology and contemplative practices of compassion. I believe individuals who commit crimes deserve resources and opportunities designed to help them change the conditions of their lives. I believe it is my right as a victim that my offender gets well.

So I was curious about the rodeo. The primary goals of the rodeo, as described on Angola’s website, seem admirable: rehabilitation of prisoners; revenue for inmate programs; and support of tourism in West Feliciana Parish, the community just beyond the penitentiary. It’s hard to find fault with those intentions.

I wondered, could the rodeo achieve that?

It’s more than just a rodeo, too. The rodeo grounds consist of the arena where amateur inmate-contestants vie for cash prizes in events that involve bucking horses and 2,000-pound Brahma bulls; concession areas, totaling sixty booths run by more than thirty different prison groups, where visitors can purchase food prepared by inmates, including nachos, and alligator on a stick; a carnival area with a mini Ferris wheel, bouncy hut, and merry-go-round for the kids; and huge open-air arts and crafts pavilions for exhibiting and selling hobbycraft that’s handmade by inmates. In other words, inmates, families, locals, tourists, and guards mingle together at the festival-art-market-carnival-rodeo. I figured if I had so many questions, it was time to join them and see the rodeo for myself.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from my house in New Orleans to Angola, Louisiana. I set out on a warm, sunny Sunday. From Interstate 10 onto Highway 61, I passed sites you might expect outside of a major city in the south: farms, chemical plants, a mobile park, roadside bar-b-cue, horse trails, a civil war battle site, a roadside flea market. I passed the old Myrtle Plantation that’s thought to be haunted and now shares a stretch of road with a Subway and a US Nails Shop. I passed turn-offs for a paper mill, the Port Hudson National Cemetery, the Feliciana Winery, the Mount Zion Church on the Hill, and the Beaver Creek golf course. A yellow sign reading “Got a Bee Problem? Call George” was tacked askew to a tree. On display in front of a Sheriff’s station sat a wrecked car, metal bent every which way, near a sign instructing “Allow Life to Thrive, Don’t Drink and Drive.” East Feliciana Parish gave way to West Feliciana Parish then a banner for the rodeo directed me to turn onto Highway 66, at the corner where a building that used to be a daiquiri shop now sits boarded shut.

The grass alongside the highway was so lush and green it seemed to be glittering. Driving up Highway 66, the road that dead-ends at Angola, I thought about the countless men, slaves and prisoners, who traveled up this same way, passed the same trees, curved the same bends, and never traveled back down. The closer I got to Angola, the more anxious I felt. I was the outside world coming in, and I sensed that somehow came with responsibility, though I wasn’t entirely sure of what or to whom.

Coming up on the prison entrance, I noticed a flock of yellow wild flowers and a large sign: “You Are Entering the Land of New Beginnings.” At the guard’s station, I was asked if I had weapons, drugs or alcohol in the car, and when I answered no I was waved on in. Angola is beautiful farmland, vast swathes of green pasture, cattle grazing behind white picket fences. It is, after all, a plantation. Along the road, snapdragons in yellow, red, pink and white were in full bloom. Even with the activity of the rodeo ahead, it was quiet; maybe most days at Angola are quiet, sounds absorbed in its great distances.

I parked on the grassy lot in Section 3, and walked the short way to the visitor’s gate. I’d bought my $20 ticket online in advance, which is recommended because the rodeo sells out. After going through the security checkpoint that consisted of a female guard searching my purse and removing the suntan lotion, which I walked back to my car, I entered the festival, another tourist in the crowd.

The first thing I saw was a huge sign advertising “Take Your Jail Cell Photo Here.” A mock jail cell had been erected for visitors to pay to stand behind for a souvenir snapshot if they were so inclined. The photo booth was sponsored by the Sober Club. Across the dirt path was a table set up for the Angola Museum gift shop which was selling souvenir t-shirts, caps and cups. The Church of God in Christ had a concession stand with fried pork chop sandwiches and meatballs on a stick. The Angola Lifers Association sold sno-balls and caramel popcorn. The Association of Literary Arts offered chicken gizzards and crab cakes. The Philanthropy Club served alligator and turtle pastalaya, along with fried Coke, which, I was told by a Philanthropy Club member, is similar to funnel cake or beignet dough mixed with Coke, then deep fried and topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Coke is a sponsor of the rodeo, along with Louisiana Lottery, Whitney Bank, and local car dealerships. Advertising packages begin at $2,500 and go to $10,000 and up for Gold Level sponsors.

Inmates who’ve earned trustee status and therefore need minimal supervision manned the concession booths, or sold their hobbycraft, and interacted freely with visitors. I stopped to talk with several men whose artwork I admired: a man who had carved hundreds of wooden roses and shellacked them until they gleamed; another who painted large portraits of chickens in bright, joyful colors; and a painter who specialized in serene landscapes filled with flowers. Inmates were distinguishable mainly by their white t-shirts printed with Rodeo Worker on the back. Men who make hobbycraft but are without trustee privileges were kept behind wire fence corridors that stretched around an art pavilion. The zoo analogy is uncomfortably apt: all afternoon a stream of people, myself included, most in shorts and flip flops, munching food from one of the concession stands, walked past these individuals in fenced cages while browsing their artwork.

Inmates who participated in the rodeo events wore white and black striped shirts, making them more visible and also the celebrities of the day. I made it into the arena after the National Anthem but in time to see the opening parade of horses with inmate riders carrying a procession of flags: American, Louisiana, POW/MIA, and Confederate. Rows of red, white and blue plastic pennant flags stretched the width of the arena above the men on horses. I counted 32 sections plus the VIP area, and an American flag flapped in the breeze of every section, clearly signaling this was a patriotic event.

I winced watching the rodeo contests. Horses bucking, men catapulting, it was a chaos of arms and legs and twisted bodies in the ring. Other spectators, though, seemed to be having a great time. People of all ages cheered, up on their feet. Spectators closest to ground level shot video with their cell phones. I sat high in the bleachers behind what looked to be a three-generation family who were passing bags of boiled peanuts and cold drinks to each other up and down the row.

Rodeos usually showcase the skills cowboys develop out cattle-ranching. Because inmates at Angola never practice for the rodeo, the events seemed like parodies, and winning appeared to be based on courage, luck, and sheer endurance for pain.
In one rodeo event, inmates stood in the center of hula-hoops. The winner of the cash award was the man who stayed inside the hula-hoop longer than anyone else once a 2,000-pound bull was let loose from the bullpen. Professional rodeo clowns agitated the bull, throwing hula-hoops at it, and chased the bull to make it charge the men. There was nowhere to escape from the bull once instinct kicked in, so the men dove to the ground beside their hula-hoops, tried to roll out of the way before they were mauled.

In a similar event called Convict Poker, a red folding table was set up in the arena and four men sat around it in plastic chairs, their hands on the table as if playing cards, while the Pink Panther Theme played through the static of the sound system. The winner was the last man sitting once the bull came charging. The event lasted several seconds, during which time two chairs were destroyed and one man was trampled.

The grand event of the day was Guts and Glory, in which a poker chip was tied to the forehead of a wild Brahma bull.

Contestants tried to get right up to the bull in order to grab the chip from between its horns. It was mayhem in the ring and an explosion of cheers in the stands. I don’t know how many contestants were injured but I saw one bloodied man carried by two EMS workers to the ambulance that was stationed on the other side of the fence.

Men getting brutalized while people are applauding happens every day. If it’s not in the rodeo, it’s in the courthouse. If it’s not in the courthouse, it’s in the city.

I thought about the wild animal shows and bloody entertainment of early Roman gladiator events in which conquered people and condemned prisoners fought in an arena to their deaths. I thought too of lynchings, how white families would set up picnics in the park to watch black men lynched on a tree. These comparisons aren’t entirely fair since rodeo contestants choose to participate, and certainly the goal at the rodeo is to walk away with cash, unharmed. Also, there were spectators of all races, and many of the visitors were presumably family members there to see loved ones outside of the main prison visiting shed. I can’t possibly know all the various motivations of the visitors, and many people there certainly had the intention to do good. Still, I wonder what aspect of human psychology is behind people with freedom delighting in the danger and harm of those who are enslaved, conquered or vulnerable, even turning it to sport? Whether it’s 50,000 people in the Roman Colosseum, or 10,000 in Angola’s rodeo stands, it was spectacle then and it’s spectacle now.

At best, the Angola rodeo is a bizarre twist of logic. We take people off the streets with life sentences, deem them unfit to be in society, then we pay an admission fee to be among them at the prison where they’ll be housed forever, even take photos behind a fake jail cell, pretending to be them. They entertain us in potentially fatal events; prepare and serve us nachos and burgers and catfish po-boys; sell handcrafted rocking chairs, leather belts, and still-life paintings for us to bring home; they run the merry-go-round for our children.

How can he catch a break? He can step into the arena with a bull. He can compete for $100, the equivalent of 5,000 hours of work.

The optics of the rodeo seem to me as dangerous as the bull, though in a different way. It’s easy to forget you’re inside a prison, and equally easy to think prison is a unique way to have fun. How can spectators be expected to have compassion for the fate of so many men when the conditions of their suffering are hidden behind the veneer of a festival?

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. As a country, our nature has been to mess over people who are down or vulnerable. Our history and our laws show that. Men getting brutalized while people are applauding happens every day. If it’s not in the rodeo, it’s in the courthouse. If it’s not in the courthouse, it’s in the city.

Even so, the rodeo serves a purpose and there are significant reasons men participate: to be of service and give back to the community; for a chance to communicate with people from the outside and break up the monotony of prison life; and to generate funds for basic necessities, legal documents, or to send home.

It’s helpful to remember that inmate “incentive wages” are typically two cents an hour for farm labor. If an inmate without a lawyer wants, say, a copy of his 20-page police report in order to work on his case, he has to buy it from the Records Division of the Police Department, and transcripts cost $25 for the first ten pages, and $1 for each additional page. At two cents an hour it takes 50 hours to earn one dollar. It would take 1,750 hours, or 43 straight weeks of work, to earn enough for the police report. But if he also has to buy deodorant or lotion for $3 each, or wants to make a 15-minute phone call for around $3, or hopes to send a birthday card to his mother or wife or son, how does he do it? How can he catch a break? He can step into the arena with a bull. He can compete for $100, the equivalent of 5,000 hours of work. Outside of the rodeo and making hobbycraft, there are no other earning options.

In the arts and crafts show, there were thousands of meticulously handcrafted pieces to choose from: paintings, belt buckles, rocking chairs, furniture, metal work, jewelry, leather goods, wood carvings, and more. Inmates keep a portion of their sales earnings while the rest goes to the prison. I bought an oil landscape painting for $25 from Melvin, a trustee who manned his own table, and a vintage style wooden cutting board for $15 from Michael, who stood behind the fenced partition.

Selling hobbycraft is safer, but if going against a bull offers a small hope of large reward, I can understand why the inherent dangers might seem worth it. Life in prison is already a life of extremes. At one extreme, if a guy died against the bull, it would be a discharge from his sentence; at the other, if he won, he’d have money and at least a momentary sense of accomplishment. Maybe it’s not that simple, but for some incarcerated individuals, I wonder if it feels as though there isn’t much to lose.

Beyond monetary benefits, the rodeo is a chance for men to be of service, and giving back to society is a powerful form of making amends. The rodeo also offers a chance to connect with people in the free world, share a conversation or a smile with someone new. Some men at Angola haven’t had a phone call or letter or visit in years, even decades. The rodeo might provide a brief relief from isolation and loneliness. Plus, the rodeo is rehabilitative in that only men with clean records are permitted to attend, so it offers an incentive for good conduct. For me, this begs the question then, if a man is so transformed, might he be ready to begin his transition back to the free world?

True, the rodeo is a controlled and supervised environment, and certainly not every trustee is ready for release. But again, from a victim’s perspective, I would rather offenders set their sights on returning to society changed men and do everything possible to correct the thought patterns and behaviors that led to their crimes, than sit in prison forever. Once the men at Angola are renewed, in my opinion, they ought to go home, with the full benefit of community support, rituals of reentry, and opportunities to restart their lives. Where is the humanity in a system that doesn’t allow for such hope?

It’s not enough to cheer when a man’s wrangling a bull. No doubt he wrangles the bulls of prison every day. If we choose to be among these men in a community-wide family festival, perhaps we can extend our interaction further, and maybe some of the visitors already do. There ought to be countless options all throughout the year for us to engage meaningfully and respectfully with incarcerated individuals.

Beyond direct contact, there are certainly many steps we could take to support men – and women – in prison. In addition to, or even instead of, attending the rodeo, we could donate $20 to a fund for other types of incentives within prison. We could hold our lawmakers accountable to providing the services inmates truly need to live more fully either within prison or upon release. We could voice our concerns about unfair sentencing practices across the country, including life sentences for non-violent crimes. We could make legal documents readily available to inmates so they can participate in their constitutional right of appeal. We could volunteer with reentry programs to assist these same men if they ever do get out of prison.

Driving back down Highway 66, I was relieved to be heading home. I turned off the car radio and drove in silence, replaying the images of the day in my mind. I still didn’t know how to add up the equation of entertainment plus justice, but it was clear that when I looked past the high energy and good times of the rodeo, it was easier to see prison for what it is.

I thought about Melvin and his painting. In it, there’s a dirt road that curves past five plump, squat trees shaped like gumdrops. In the foreground is a wooden post wrapped in a red and pink flowering vine. Melvin explained that as the road reached toward the horizon, it turned from brown to yellow, like the sun was lighting it the further it got from Angola.

Lara Naughton is an author and documentary playwright. Her memoir, The Jaguar Man, was just published and her play Never Fight a Shark in Water: The Wrongful Conviction of Gregory Bright has been performed around the country. She is a certified Compassion Cultivation Trainer through The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University; Director of CompassionNOLA; and Chair of Creative Writing at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

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