The Angola Prison Rodeo is extremely famous in the Deep South. Every Sunday of October, a show is organized in the largest maximum security prison of the United States. Many people come from far away to attend it.
The “Alcatraz of the South” was built in a very remote place, between the State of Mississippi and the State of Louisiana, with the Mississippi River to the North, West and South, and a huge forest and the Tunika Hills to the East. Locals say that there’s no way out of it. I was told that, one day, a prisoner succeeded to escape, but he ended up wandering in the swamps for three days before turning himself back to the prison guards, for he couldn’t survive in the wild any longer. This place was once a slave plantation, and it is sometimes referred to as “The Farm,” because it still operates as such. People say that only the most insane criminals are incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and that they usually serve a life sentence. Wikipedia seems to back that up.
The drive to the penitentiary was a real immersion in “backwoods country.” The forest begins just North of Baton Rouge, where the landscape becomes very similar to Mississippi. Most people I’ve talked to described Mississippi as the poorest, most backward and uneducated State of the U.S. Having been there twice, I can understand why city people would think that, but I personally like Mississippi a lot. Anyway, so after about thirty minutes of driving on the U.S. Route 61 North, we stopped at a gas station. And what a gas station! It was in advanced state of disrepair. When we got out of the car, I felt a little uncomfortable, as localpeople staring at us. After we got the gas, we continued our drive to the prison. We ended up on a grayish road surrounded by huge deep-green oaks. From time to time, we could distinguish a few wooden houses or mobile homes through a thick layer of leaves and branches. I was with my American neighbors, who seemed horrified by the sight of these remote houses. The view was probably feeding their fears of the redneck backcountry. After a one hour drive through the forest though, we finally arrived at the prison, built in the middle of a huge no man’s land. I bet that from the top of their turrets, the guards could spot even a rabbit two or three miles away.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect of the rodeo. When I was first told that it involved prisoners, my reaction was to picture an Ancient Rome arena with sheriff deputies throwing inmates in orange clothes in there, to the mercy of enraged bulls, for the enjoyment of the crowd. I understand that the circumstances can sound shocking, but I think anybody should go very open-minded. That is what I did, and the experience turned out to be something that was far better than my expectations. The event has a way deeper meaning than just watching some dudes getting impaled by massive bulls on steroids. Of course, a couple of guys ended up at the infirmary, and one man was thrown so high in the air that I thought he would never come back down, but I haven’t seen anything more dangerous than what I had seen on TV. It was also definitely far from what they do in Spain during the summer. It’s possible that the prisoners take more risks, because they don’t have anything to loose, but there are cowboys ready to immobilize the animal at any time if things ever get out of control. I was surprised at how the public was good and cheering for the participants. Everybody was encouraging the guys in their attempts to tame the wild beasts. Participants were all volunteers. I assume that winning the rodeo gives them a lot of notoriety and respect within the prison.
The rodeo was something very entertaining and like nothing I had ever seen before. There were cowboys everywhere, and people where from any social origins or any race. The show itself was around three hour long. It started with men trying to ride wild bulls and horses. Then, they did some very cool games such as the “Convict Poker,” also known as the “Suicide Poker” or “Bull Poker.” That was the craziest for me: a table and four chairs are set in the arena. The purpose of the game is for the four participants to remain seated around the table as long as they can, while a bull is released on the field. The last man still sat wins. There was another cool game where they placed circles in the dirt, with one inmate per circle, and released a bull. The last inmate standing still in the circle would win. There were other cool games, culminating on the final challenge. A coin was glued on the forehead of the biggest bull of the rodeo which was then released on the field. All participants would go in the arena as well, and try to catch the coin form the bull’s head. It was really entertaining. Thank God, no one was seriously hurt.
The rodeo was something very entertaining and like nothing I had ever seen before. There were cowboys everywhere, and people from all social and racial origins. The atmosphere was extremely rural and traditional, but that is precisely what I was hoping for. I suppose that a lot of visitors had relatives locked up in the prison, and I am sure that it was a good occasion for them to interact outside of the prison walls, if I can phrase it this way. As mentioned earlier, the event is more than just the rodeo show part. It takes place over the whole day. There is great food and drinks for sale. The money collected at this occasion is used to organize events and activities for the prisoners throughout the year. Also, the prisoners are given the right to sell art creations that they may have done over the year. A lot of inmates would sell paintings, wooden sculptures, decoration items, etc. This huge fair gives to this event a strong human dimension and I am sure that it gives a little bit of hope to a lot of prisoners. It must give them a feeling of existence the time of a day.
I totally recommend the Angola Prison Rodeo. As insane as it sounds when you first hear about it, you should give it a try and go without any expectation. You will be greatly and positively surprised and it will remain a good memory.