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Adventures in Louisiana: The Angola Prison Rodeo

Angola - Inmates and GuestBy every measure known, the state of Louisiana is the #1 imprisoner of its citizens in the world.  For every 100,000 Louisiana citizens, there are 1,619 inmates housed in the various correctional facilities that dot the state – one for every 86 citizens.   That’s more than the national average of 730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.  That’s more than triple the rate of the next nation state (the Republic of Georgia with 531).  I won’t even mention how far away Louisiana is from nations like the UK, Australia, North Korea or China.  (You know, those hippie communes).  All these persons are dispersed amongst 2 federal prison complexes, 6 state-run correctional facilities, 2 private correctional centers with another state facility about to be privatized, 1 correctional institute for women, and 1 center that is scheduled to be closed.  (If you want a more in-depth look, read The Times-Picayune’s famous series, “Louisiana Incarcerated”, on the prison industrial system in the state here at this link.

Of those various prison facilities, none in the state of Louisiana is as big or as notorious as the Louisiana State Penitentiary AKA “Angola”.  It is the biggest prison in both Louisiana and America, by just about any measure you care to throw.  It’s 18-000 square feet or 28 square miles – bigger than the island of Manhattan.  There’s a lake right smack in the middle of it!  Its inmate population of around 6,000 is the largest for any single facility in the world with over three-fourths of them serving life sentences.  This is where Louisiana’s death row inmates go before they are executed.  It has been featured in documentaries and used as a movie set for films like Dead Man Walking.

Angola - RideI start here because my small tale of the experiences at the famous (some would say infamous) Angola Prison Rodeo should start here.  Because it is this strange dichotomy between the experience you have and the place you have them that makes the Angola Prison Rodeo such an event.  Going on for 50 years now, Angola’s is the oldest and longest-running prison rodeo in the United States.  Part of its allure is that it’s held only 5 days in the entire year – one weekend in April and four Sundays in October.  That’s it.  And you must have a ticket to get in.

(Aside: it’s imperative if you want to go to purchase your tickets in advance.  I tried buying tickets to the October 12th date and found they were damn near gone.  So I bought tickets for Sunday, October 19th.  By the time we left for the rodeo on Sunday, both that date and the last day of the Rodeo were sold out.  Don’t expect to show up and buy a ticket at the Prison.  That ain’t happening).

Angola is about 2 hours north-northwest of New Orleans.  We left early in the morning and had no issues making the easy trek to Baton Rouge.  From there you take Interstate-110 to Highway 61 until you reach Highway 66.  The drive gets slower once you leave the interstates, but it is far, far prettier. Green fields, trees turning all shades of brown, red and even some yellow as fall begins to take over and small country homes and churches dot the landscape.  Aside: you will pass The Myrtles Plantation on your way to Angola. It’s on Highway 61 and if you fancy visiting the most haunted place in Louisiana, well, there’s your stop.

The closer you approach the turn to Highway 66, the more traffic converges and slows you down.  State troopers and other officers are present to direct traffic, but keep in mind that Highway 66 is a two-lane, small, curving highway.  Traffic and small narrow roads mean you should be careful as you approach the prison. Sadly, on the way out, we were slowed by a head-on collision accident between two vehicles on 66.  It is a deceptively-curvy road with ditches on both sides and lots of residences.  So don’t speed there.  Eventually, Highway 66 ends at the front gate of LSP.

Before you get there though, the LSP position themselves on the road to turn it into two lanes to enter the prison and to give you a sheet of paper with a list of instructions.  Foremost is the warning that you are entering a prison and that you agree to a search of your person, belongings and vehicle.  Also there is no photography allowed. (Hence why I’m using stock photos from around the web).  Obviously, there’s plenty of guards everywhere but you’re told to lock your car and mind your belongings. My recommendation? Leave purses and backpacks in your car.  Bring ID and your ticket and wallet.

As we enter the prison, we’re split along the roads that go around Lake Kilkenny.  It’s here you really start getting a sense of how big Angola is.  Empty fields that in the spring and summer are used to raise crops for the prison surround you.  Large embankments on each side of the road drop off towards either the lake or towards wild areas.  You pass old buildings no longer in use and are eventually led to a large, open field that’s used as a parking area.  Here I noticed lots of trucks and cars with hitches attached.

Angola - ArtsThe reason for the hitches is the other major attraction to the Angola Prison Rodeo: the Arts & Crafts Market.  Produced entirely by inmates from Angola, you get a range of wood and metal products that go from rosaries, pendants and rings to wood carvings, paintings and furnishings.  It’s nothing to see people spend upwards of $500 for a set of hand-crafted chairs and table or $200 for a child’s Saints bike seesaw.  For the inmates, it’s a chance to bring some money in.  For the Rodeogoers, it’s a chance to grab something artisanal that’s handcrafted.  If you find something you want, you are given a slip with the quoted price which you take to the nearby cashier station where you can pay in cash or credit card.  Do note that all sales are final and no refunds, no exchanges and returns are allowed.

Alongside the Arts & Craft Show are the normal carnival/fair food stuffs – deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried Snickers, caramel popcorn, cotton candy, burgers, hot dogs – along with more Louisiana food fare such as jambalaya, shrimp and alligator pasta and freshly-made pork crackling.  Everything is done with cash, but ATMs are available nearby.  Yes, some lines will be longer than others, but things move quickly.  You’ll have a harder time finding a spot to sit and eat though.  Particularly as everyone’s trying to eat before the Rodeo begins.

By 1:30 PM, most folks begin streaming into the Rodeo stands and here we got a bit of a surprise.  When I had purchased the tickets, I had gotten six together – for me and friends and family to sit next to one another.  I even thought I’d been luck at getting the Ground level tickets.  Hey, right next to the action right?  Well, color me surprised to find that the seats were a bench that was placed right below the railing and right next to the drainage.  In order to sit, you had to bend down and sit with either a metal bar in front or right behind you.  My choice for my feet was no better. It was either put them on the mud used for the field or put them right in the drainage.  I was so disappointed that there were no pictures on the Angola Prison Rodeo’s website to let me see just what I was purchasing.  Alas, no choice was available.  The thing was sold out and seats are marked on each ticket.

Having no choice, we sat down on what were arguably the least comfortable seats for us and waited for the show to begin.  Not soon after, the Warden rode on and things got started.  First things were a presentation of colors and a prayer for the rodeo performers.  Then, we had an intro to the guys who’d be taking part in the rodeo and the National Anthem.  I must admit that, being at ground level, getting up every time was a pain and that the PA system sounded muffled to me.  I could only ever make out about half of what was being said.Advocate Staff Photo Mark Saltz   April 19, 2009<br />
Trax # 00 2009 ANGOLA SPRING RODEO<br />
 during the 2009 Angola Spring Rodeo at Angola Penitentiary at Angola, La. on April 19, 2009.

But all of that faded as the Rodeo got underway.

There are 12 events overall in the Rodeo, with only a few not involving the Angola inmates.  These are the Barrel Race, which involves the Girl’s Rodeo Association riders going for a fastest time lap around barrels and a couple of animal events like monkeys riding dogs and a Cowboys & Indians show featuring a couple of really well-trained buffaloes.  And I’ll tell you, there’s something to coming face to face with a massive buffalo that made me glad I was sitting where I was. Having never been that close to a buffalo, it was a breathtaking moment.

However, the rest of the events involve the inmates in a Rodeo and that involves men coming up against big animals.  Some of those are traditional Rodeo events: Bust Out (six riders atop six bulls with longest lasting winning) or Bareback Riding (riders atop bucking horses for the famous 8 seconds) or Bull Riding (sit and ride atop a 2-ton bull for 6 seconds).  A few others are unique to Angola’s Prison Rodeo.  Wild Horse Race has horses released with 3-man teams attempting to hang onto them long enough to let one get atop.  Bull-Dogging has a young bull coming out of the chute with a 2-man team trying to wrestle it down and over.  Wild Cow Milking involves trying to chase cows down and trying to milk them.  There’s a few others but they are similar in nature.

And of course, there’s the two most infamous events, Convict Poker and Guts & Glory.  Convict Poker has four inmates sitting down at a table playing poker while an angry bull is released.  The bull will charge the inmates and the one who lasts the longer at the table wins the pot of money.  Not surprising, the bull will destroy the table, chairs and often upend one or more inmates.  Guts & Glory, meanwhile, closes the Rodeo.  A poker chip is taped to the head of a Brahma bull.  The inmates must chase it and the one who takes it off wins $500.  Obviously, it’s not as easy as I made it sound.

Angola - PokerIt’s amazing watching the various inmates risk life and limb in the various events, but not only are they game, they seem to get a kick out of the response of the crowd.  Every time one would fall off a bull or a horse, they would get up and get the crowd to cheer louder.  Even during events like Convict Poker, they would make sure to take a bow after the bull had been safely moved out of the way.

It’s here that the strangeness of the situation strikes you.  You’re sitting in the middle of one of the biggest, toughest prisons in the world.  You’re watching hardened, life-sentenced criminals put themselves in harm’s way as they face off big bulls and dangerous horses in a Rodeo.  And you’re having a good time.

Because regardless of the drive, the seats, the rules or anything else, the simple fact is you’re having a good time watching it all.  It’s an experience watching these men put themselves at risk against big animals.  They work really hard at giving you a show and you can’t help but root for them as they try to stay atop a bucking bronco or try to tackle and flip a young bull.  To say nothing of the events where they have to stay perfectly still or risk having a Brahma bull charge them.  You cheer their efforts and their bravery.

It’s within this duality that the Angola Prison Rodeo exists.  It’s an event to raise money for religious and educational purposes performed for the enjoyment of the public by men that society has deemed committed acts so heinous they should not be amongst us anymore.  It takes place in one of the largest, most notorious prisons in the world in the state that incarcerates more people than any other.  And for $15 a pop, you can enter this prison, eat carnival food, buy handcrafted art and furnishings and watch one hell of a show.Angola - Guts and Glory

Only in Louisiana.

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