Though I’ve spent my whole life here in Mobile, AL, I’ve never really gotten into many of the things people think of as traditionally “Southern”. Things like mud-riding, country music, hunting, livestock, the Marlboro man, and rodeos have never even vaguely appealed to me. Though I still feel that way about almost everything on that list, I had to cross one off the list recently. It all began when I heard a couple of fateful words: Louisiana state prisoners with no training or experience riding wild bulls.
Yes folks I’m talking about the Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA. I had never heard of such a thing until a couple of years ago when the GF Casey attended and could not stop talking about how great a show it was. Though she talked it up something fierce, I still wanted to hold on to my disdain for most things related to livestock and country music. Fast forward a couple of years and Casey was dead set on attending again. I decided that now was the time to branch out and try something new, and boy am I glad I did.
For the uninitiated Angola Prison holds a prison rodeo one weekend in April and every weekend in October. This is a full fledged rodeo with the inmates competing in the events. Angola is a maximum security prison with the majority of the prisoners serving life sentences. This creates an environment where the prisoners are looking for excitement without a whole lot of regard for their individual safety. They compete for the adventure and for the chance to win money for their prison bank account. For spectators this means lots of excitement and daring feats.
Tickets to the rodeo can be purchased online (they currently use Tickets.com but they really should switch over and use Birmingham’s TicketBiscuit) or via telephone, but they sell out almost immediately after going on sale. So if you think you might like to go, you really need to plan ahead and get your tickets. The rodeo takes place in a very nice covered facility built by the inmates and all seats are assigned (the best seats are in the upper sections opposite the shoots since these keep the sun out of your face).
A couple of things to be clear about, the rodeo takes place inside of a state maximum security prison. It is one of the few times people are allowed to roam freely around. By attending the event you agree to have your car or person searched if they so desire. Also, no cellphones or cameras are allowed into the prison (as well as weapons and drugs of course). I was expecting to be wanded or patted down but during our time there we were not searched. If you leave your car unlocked, they will search it (got to make sure no inmates are hiding in there). Approved media personnel can bring cameras and film the event.
That said my experience was completely pleasant. I was a bit uneasy about giving up my privacy rights while inside the prison but there were no incidents and I would definitely go again. While the rodeo is the main event, there is also an arts and crafts show that is equally amazing. The prisoners create all kinds of crafts for sale. From t-shirts to leather goods to drink cozies to fantastic wood-working projects, they have something for everyone. The level of craftsmanship is really incredible. It is obvious these guys have lots of time to spend perfecting their creations.
The prison facility itself is a sight to see. It encompasses 18,000 acres of land in Angola, LA (about 50 miles from Baton Rouge) and is bordered on 3 sides by the mighty Mississippi River. It is a full working farm with the inmates growing much of the food they consume. In the warden’s words related to running a peaceful maximum security prison “you’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.” I like the concept of the inmates being able to work and create while incarcerated versus just spending 23 hours per day in isolation. It seems like a model facility though it does cost $98 million/year to house around 5,000 inmates. That works out to about $20,000/year per inmate. At least for that $20k/year the good people get entertainment value from the Rodeo.
When it comes to the rodeo itself, the inmates compete in a range of events that go from mildly amusing to downright life threatening. They ride the bucking bulls, they wrestle calves to the ground, ride horses bareback, and even try to play tug of war against wild horses. But where it really gets crazy are in events like Convict Poker. In this event they seat 4 inmates around a poker table each holding cards. Then they release the angry bull into the arena. Last man still sitting and holding his cards wins. What we saw in this event was a bull running full speed ahead ramming into the back of one of the players and knocking the entire table and everyone seated at it into the air. Amazingly no one was injured.
We did see one poor prisoner get knocked out when trying to wrestle a calf to the ground (an event called Bull-Dogging). He must have taken a stray hoof to the head because he went completely limp. The medical staff immediately sprang to action and got him to an ambulance for attention.
In another event they placed nine hula hoops on the ground and placed one inmate in each hula hoop. They then released the angry bull with the last man still standing in his hula hoop winning the event. Apparently the bulls trigger off of any movement so the prisoners tried to remain as still as possible. Unfortunately when the bull would get to close, someone would invariably lose their nerve and flinch causing the bull to charge full speed ahead sending those poor fellas flying.
In addition to the untrained inmates, they had professionals on hand as well. The Girl’s Rodeo Association performed an event of barrel racing. It was an incredible sight to see extremely young girls riding with such skill. A professional MC, rodeo clowns, and cowboys are on hand to ensure the safety of the inmates (as much as possible). The rodeo clowns and cowboys make sure that after someone has been dismounted from a bucking animal they are able to get to safety and the animal is corralled out of the arena. I had never really seen cowboys work livestock before, but the way they maneuvered their horses and used their lassos was unbelievable. I never realized the amount of skill required for such a thing. They really blew me away. The rodeo clowns showed an remarkable speed and agility. To be able to taunt a bull and then out maneuver him takes serious guts.
One of my favorite events was put on by Team Ghostriders. This was a demonstration of dogs working sheep into a corral. But it was not just any dogs, they were beautiful Border Collies (considered by many to be the most intelligent dog breed). Oh, and these dogs were not working solo. Oh no, they were being ridden by monkeys. Did you hear me? Dogs wearing saddles being ridden by monkeys dressed in full cowboy gear (hats, vests, chaps). Now that is my kind of entertainment. The monkeys rode their faithful steeds with acumen and corralled the sheep into their pen with no problems. That is worth the drive over to attend all by itself.
Oh, but wait there is more. The last event of the show is called Guts & Glory. In this event, they place a poker chip onto the forehead of the meanest bull they have. Then they release a group of inmates to try to take the chip off of the bull’s forehead. Definitely guts required for that one. Apparently it usually takes quite a while for the inmates to finally get the chip, but during our show someone must have been looking out for these guys. The bull got distracted by one group of inmates and another was able to rush in and grab it within 60 seconds of the start of the event. He was a very happy camper indeed winning $500 into his prison bank account.
I can’t speak highly enough about the Angola Prison Rodeo. It was an incredible experience. The inmates we talked with were all polite and courteous. The prison staff were extremely organized and efficient, and I felt completely safe at all times within the facility. It is definitely a first-rate event. I would have to say that everyone should attend at least once. Careful though you may get hooked and make it an annual thing.
*Pics from Frank3.0′s Flickr set. Click the pics to view the details or see the whole set here: Angola Prison Rodeo, 18 October, 2009 (Set)