Praises For The Angola Rodeo.
For a few days now, I have been wanting to comment on The Angola Prison Rodeo, hundreds of people attend the maximum-security prison to get in and see inmates riding bulls, includes wild-cow milking, and a wild “guts & glory” poker game that has inmates try to grab a poker chip tied to the head of a furious bull, not to mention the convict poker game that has four inmates playing cards at a table in the arena; the last man to remain seated after a charging bull is released wins the game! All in good fun.
The Angola Rodeo celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and the hand painted signs advertised as “the wildest show in the South”. When the Rodeo first begun, it had a few spectators who sat on upturned crates. Today, all riders compete in an inmate-built arena which seats 10,000.
There is a lot to do every year at the Rodeo, snacks and furniture hand-carved by inmates will be available for purchase. Proceeds go to the Inmate Welfare Fund, which pays for the educational and recreational programs available to prisoners.
A recent article which appeared in the Economist is excellent. I am reprinting a portion of it below. Go next year to the Rodeo if you can. You might come away with an interesting view of what many men behind bars can do with their shattered lives.
The Economist | The Angola prison rodeo: Life, death and raging bulls
Lifers make something of their lives
“Burl Cain, the warden since 1995, credits these programs—particularly the religious ones—with making Angola safer than it used to be (inmate violence is down 80% since he took over, the prison says). Angola has its own radio and TV stations, a magazine called the Angolite and an inmate-built, nine-hole golf course called Prison View. But these are sideshows to the “moral rehabilitation” says Mr. Cain. “If we don’t rehabilitate [inmates’] consciences, all we do is just make smarter criminals.”
In 1994 Congress forbade prisoners from using Pell grants, which pay for college. Post-secondary education in prison collapsed. But Angola has a branch of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary behind its walls—a four-year university funded by donations opens to students of any faith who want a degree in Baptist ministry. Angola now sends “inmate missionaries” to other prisons in the state.
“I broke all the traditions,” says Mr. Cain, a stocky man with the longish white hair of a preacher and the self-assured manner of someone who holds others’ lives in his hand. “We don’t have any gangs here. We’ve got gangs for God. People want to belong to something, and if you don’t create something good for them to belong to they’ll create something sinister.”
Mr. Cain has detractors. Wilbert Rideau, who wrote a searing memoir called “In the Place of Justice” about the 44 years he spent behind bars, mostly at Angola, says it is “a typical Southern-style plantation prison”. All the activities just serve to keep inmates “too involved and too tired to challenge authority”. As for the violence, Mr. Rideau notes that it started to decline before Mr. Cain took over, thanks to federal oversight. Mr. Cain has also faced lawsuits over the alleged excessive use of solitary confinement, for imposing his religious views on prisoners, and for conditions on death row, where the heat index (temperature adjusted for humidity) regularly exceeded 105°F (40.5°C) in 2012. Angola says its conditions are “reasonable and safe”.
The warden has plenty of admirers, too. Michael Hallett, a criminologist, says that at Angola, unlike many prisons, “the promise of dignity is delivered upon; you can get an education, learn crafts, participate in the rodeo, and receive a measure of freedom and dignity that [prisoners] really can’t earn anywhere else.”
Some might say that risking life and limb for the cheers of strangers hardly sounds dignified, but the inmates themselves have few qualms. The rodeo “is basically our Super Bowl,” says Israel Ducre, dressed in his black-and-white striped costume. “It’s a day for us to get out, see family, and see people we haven’t seen in years: former inmates and family from the streets.”
But sadness lurks behind the excitement. Jon Hersman, an inmate selling elegantly carved wooden chairs during the rodeo, came to Angola for killing his roommate when he was 19; he is now 46. He pleaded insanity, but lost. He will probably never leave Angola.
Louisiana has America’s highest incarceration rate. Sentences are harsh: roughly 73% of Angola’s 6,250 inmates are serving life without parole. The average sentence for the rest is 90.9 years. Keith Nordyke, a parole lawyer, says: “I can’t tell you how many people I know there who rolled the dice on a trial. They turned down a 10-year manslaughter plea because they killed someone in self-defense, and ended up with second-degree murder”—which in Louisiana means life without parole.
Mr. Cain is a harsh critic of harsh sentences. Corrections, he says, “means corrections. It doesn’t mean lock up, torture and feed.” But those policies are unlikely to change. Voters hate criminals, and prisons employ a lot of people in rural Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Angola’s population is ageing. One graveyard is full. A newer, larger one is getting crowded. The inmate-staffed hospice stays busy. Mr. Cain tells a story about when he first arrived at Angola: then prisoners were buried in cardboard boxes, and during one funeral, the box broke, and the inmate’s corpse fell out. Never again, he vowed.
The day before the rodeo an inmate who died in the hospice was buried in a coffin beautifully carved by his compatriots. Like many who die of old age at Angola, no family claimed his body or attended his funeral. An inmate dressed in a top hat and tailcoat drove a horse-drawn hearse, also inmate-built, to the cemetery, where a half-dozen inmate pallbearers carried him to his grave. As it happened, the dead man was one of Angola’s few Jewish prisoners. After he was lowered into the earth another Jewish inmate wrapped himself in a prayer shawl—his tattered jeans and work boots visible beneath—and said Kaddish, alone, over the grave.”