It was a late-summer Sunday, more than a decade ago, when eight of us pulled up to the gates of Angola State Prison in Angola, Louisiana. The notice read: “You are entering a penal institution,” a wakeup call for the nerves. We were here to witness the annual Angola Prison Rodeo.
For more than 50 years, the prison has staged this rodeo. It’s sanctioned by the state, and the the prisoners are the cowboys. The rodeo, which often sells out, promised to be entertaining, breaking up the late-summer island doldrums.
We roll across miles of desolate landscape littered with dilapidated mobile homes and hulks of rusted-out cars. An hour outside of Baton Rouge, we enter the gates of Angola Prison, laced with razor-sharp concertina wire.
A sign with the smiling face of Warden Burl Cain welcomes us with these words: “If you wish to enter the premises, surrender all guns, knives, alcohol, and contraband now.” We take no chances and tender the remains of the bucket of KFC, bones and all.
The prison is surrounded by lush green pastures of the Delta. Livestock graze peacefully, framed by miles of white rail fences. Small lakes filled with white pond birds complete the tranquil symmetry of the fields. The serenity disguises the reality of the maximum security institution, Louisiana State Penitentiary, just beyond. So surreal, like being an intruder in a Salvador Dali landscape.
Inside, the scene is lively. We’re greeted by what could be described as a prison bazaar. Long tables are filled with fried pig delicacies: chittlins, cracklins, and pigtails. A hungry crowd pushes and shoves its way into a wild ecstasy of feeding frenzy. Beyond, throngs of souvenir shoppers mingle among the cramped booths of itinerant vendors and petty hustlers hawking cheap trinkets and prison memorabilia.
Inside the arena, the excitement is electric. A thick air of tension permeates the tight enclosure of plowed dirt. A 9-foot fence separates the prisoners and bulls from the spectators. About 10,000 people in the stands roar and cheer as the rodeo gets underway. The crowd bears a remarkable resemblance to the inmates.
Today’s cowboys are corralled beneath the hospitality suite, where prominent invitees and VIPs of Warden Cain enjoy the absurdity. One wonders what it takes to encourage volunteerism for these events.
This is no milquetoast rodeo. It’s the real thing. Inmates clothed in jeans and black and white striped jackets ride bulls, bucking broncs, and barrel race bareback on wild ponies.
The signature event finds four cowboys seated at a card table, painted red, playing poker. An 1,800-pound bull with red horns impatiently waits in a cage about 20 feet away. The gate opens, the bull charges the table. Two bodies go airborne, landing with loud thuds in the soft, moist dirt. Two others sit there, frozen. The bull snorts, charges again, hits the table. The buzzer rings, time’s up. The two remaining cowboys share the $200 purse.
In another event, “Guts & Glory,” a red poker chip is pasted to the head of a bull. A dozen or so cowboys enter the ring and try to retrieve the chip. Winner gets $200, a paltry sum for such a dangerous undertaking. One would wonder if spending a few weeks in the infirmary would be a good reason for volunteering for this spectacle.
The weirdest event is when three untamed broncs are roped together and six cowboys attempt to ride them. It is a scene of indescribable delirium as men and horses run wild in wide, maddening circles with no chance of success.
Despite all the brutish display called a rodeo, the crowd shows a felicitous empathy for the safety and success of the cowboys. The only break in the drama occurs when a fellow in a red Elvis outfit brings out three sheep dogs ridden by tiny monkeys wearing cowboy outfits and chasing wild goats. The laughter is too much to bear.
The rodeo finally ends. The cowboys are transformed into prisoners again while we depart in the humid dusk of a declining Delta day. But for a few hours, our lives and voices intertwined and fused into one as we all participated in this wild, unpredictable spectacle of life called a rodeo.