Angola Prison Rodeo
When convicts go from behind bars to bucking broncs, it's a wild ride at The Farm.
"The Farm”‚ as Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is known‚ is notorious for its history. The Green Mile was based on death row at Angola, and in 1952, 31 inmates known as the Heel String Gang cut their Achilles tendons to protest hard work and brutality at the prison. But more recently, The Farm has become famous for a different kind of corporal punishment: It is home to the country’s longest-running prison rodeo.
With more than 5,000 inmates and 1,700 staff members on 18,000 acres, The Farm is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States and still is, in fact, a working farm. The third weekend in April and every Sunday in October, it’s also the scene of the Angola Prison Rodeo, which began in 1964 as a way to manage inmate energy.
When the rodeo opened to the public in 1967, people sat on apple crates or car hoods to watch. By 1969, fans were filling a new 4,500-seat arena. Although the rodeo adopted the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules in 1972, it wasn’t professionally produced until 1995. And in 2000, prisoners completed work on a 9,400-seat stadium, which is typically filled to capacity. Now the rodeo is a Louisiana institution, drawing visitors from around the world.
A number of the prisoners are city boys who may have never seen a horse, much less tried to mount a bucking bronco. Since there is no dress rehearsal for these novice cowboys, professional rodeo clowns are always in the arena to ensure inmate safety, and the inmates wear protective padding. As for the safety of the public? About 80 percent of Angola’s population is serving life sentences for violent crimes or homicides and will never leave The Farm. But the approximately 1,000 prisoners who participate in the rodeo‚ as convict cowboys, cooks, food servers, and artists‚ must have either “trustee” or “minimum-security” status to mingle with the public.
And what of the animals? “The rodeo stock is provided by a professional rodeo stock contractor,” says Gary Young, one of Angola’s project coordinators. “The rodeo stock is treated in accordance with standards used at the largest rodeos.”
Having never been to a prison, I was a little wary as I approached, imagining barbed wire and gun turrets. Instead, I saw what looked like a farm and was surprised by how safe I felt. We were searched as we entered, but I’ve been patted down at the gate for a rock concert, so that was no big deal. And what was in store‚ both the rodeo and the craft fair‚ would prove to be pure entertainment. It was also cause for reflection on the precious nature of freedom and the most unlikely places you find that indomitable cowboy spirit.
For the prison and the inmates, it’s about something else. “The rodeo is a management tool that helps ensure good behavior,” Young says. “It also builds self-esteem, helping inmates to feel good about themselves. They may not stay on the bull or the horse, but they have 10,000 people acknowledging their efforts. This might be the first time in their lives that this happens, so it makes them feel better about themselves.”
Angola prison rodeo events
It’s not just the novelty of a rodeo at a maximum-security prison that makes the Angola Prison Rodeo unique. The events themselves do. Here are some highlights.
Wild Horse Race Eight
Three-man teams stand in front of each chute waiting for the simultaneous release of eight high-spirited animals. Each horse drags a rope that the contestants try to catch. Once they catch it, two try to hold the horse long enough for the third teammate to mount and ride to the finish line. My program noted many convicts taste dirt in this event‚ when I was there, they definitely ate mud. The winning team splits $140.
Bulldogging At Angola
This is strictly lasso-free. Two inmate cowboys are on either side of the chute when the 500-pound calf comes crashing out; then they try to wrestle it to the ground. Quite often, the calf prevails and the cowboys drop to the ground. The winning team splits $100.
Four inmates sit at a table holding wooden cards. A bull is released, and the rodeo clowns provoke the bull into disrupting the card game. When I attended, the bull seemed interested in one player’s cards and stood looking over the guy’s shoulder until the clowns provoked him into knocking over the table. The last guy sitting wins $200. I spoke to the two 2008 Convict Poker champs, who proudly wore their huge silver championship buckles. Both champs led me to believe that, as in cards, luck may be the biggest factor‚ since good cards or horse sense won’t keep you seated at a table in front of a charging bull.
Guts & Glory
A bright-red poker chip is tied to the bull’s horn. The winning inmate from among the 60 who participate must remove the chip from the uncooperative bull to win the rodeo’s largest prize: $500. The bull makes the event seem more like bowling, knocking guys down like bowling pins before they get close.
Jerald Wilson, artist
He might be serving a life sentence, but that doesn’t stop him from painting.
Before his incarceration at Angola, 49-year-old Jerry Wilson had no artistic training. A self-taught oil painter, he’s been creating rodeo and Western images for the past six years of his life sentence for murder. A man of few words, Wilson allowed that magazines and art books have helped him hone his skills. All prisoner artwork is created during free time, since inmates have a job five days a week. (Wilson’s jobs are cutting the grass and picking up litter in a designated area.)
While some of his oil paintings emulate the colorful, energetic style and subject matter of New Orleans painter James Michalopoulos (I bought one for $200), some of Wilson’s best work evokes the American West with cowboys, horses, and rodeo themes. “I’ve never been around horses or rodeos before Angola. I was raised in a military family, which traveled a lot,” Wilson says. Even so, his paintings show a remarkable feel for the Western lifestyle. Had I been able to afford a second painting, I would have bought one of a cowboy silhouetted against a barn. It was an image so familiar it was almost iconic, different now because it was imbued with the apartness that is Angola.
From the plantation to the pen
Once part of the plantation empire of Isaac Franklin, who made his money in the slave trade, the land on which the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is built has a long history of involuntary servitude. Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, the low-lying plantation was purchased in 1880 by Samuel James, a former Confederate major. At the time, the James family was under contract with the state of Louisiana to manage the state’s entire correctional system, and James began housing inmates from the Baton Rouge prison in the old Angola plantation slave quarters to help maintain the property and, most important, the levees. When newspaper accounts of poor prison conditions and prisoner mistreatment began to appear, the state decided to resume control of all inmates and purchased the plantation at the beginning of the 20th century.
By the 1960s, a high number of inmate assaults earned Angola the reputation as “the bloodiest prison in America.” In an attempt to entertain the unruly prisoners‚ and, it was hoped, to give them a constructive physical outlet‚ the Angola Prison Rodeo was started in a small arena on prison grounds in 1964. Three years later, it was opened to visitors, who’ve been coming ever since.
— Kathy Wise
Six seconds of Freedom
The DVD box sums it up: “In a place where every minute of every day is controlled, six seconds is an eternity.” For some of the 5,000-plus inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the five or six weekends a year of the Angola Prison Rodeo represent a kind of reprieve. Told through the experiences of four inmates serving life sentences for murder, rape, and kidnapping, it’s a story of mud and guts. www.sixsecondsoffreedom.com.