“Most prisons could do this if they wanted to,” said Burl Cain, warden of the Angola state pen, but he was being far too modest.
The occasion was last Sunday’s sell-out rodeo, which must be the best show put on by a captive crew since the heyday of the Roman Coliseum. The biggest difference is that here the participants, so far, have always survived.
There can’t be many prisons capable of staging a comparable event, certainly not in the federal system, which tends to house more white-collar crooks, such as politicians. The feds already have former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, for instance, and they’ll soon have former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan too. While it would be worth at least $100 to watch either of them try to rope a steer, they don’t seem the type to volunteer.
This is not to say all federal prisoners are wusses, but a devil-may-care attitude is much likelier at Angola, which is such a bad-ass joint that only a minority of the 5,000 inmates has any hope of getting out before they die of old age. No wonder ducats, which go for $15 each, are in high demand. The rodeo, held twice in April and every Sunday in October, raises about $250,000 a year, much of which goes to support ex-cons adjusting to life outside.
Chances to earn a few bucks, legitimately anyway, are rare in the pen, so the rodeo for many inmates is evidently not to be missed. The money they win is credited to their Angola bank accounts.
For inmates, the excitement of a rodeo must also be a welcome change from routine. Acquaintances with relevant experience say time passes more quickly at Angola than in the federal pen, because inmates work hard on the farm all day, but the boredom must still be crushing. Since the Angola regime is also conducive to a high level of physical fitness, this is clearly the ideal place for a prison rodeo.
The rodeo, where inmates also get to hawk their arts and crafts, gives them “entrepreneurial skills,” and therefore makes Angola safer, according to Cain. Perhaps he is right; there’s much less violence in federal penitentiaries, and they are full of criminals with entrepreneurial skills.
Cain’s ideas on the rodeo’s appeal to the public, however, make less sense. He claims an educational value for it, and says, “I love it when people bring young kids here, because they ask, ‘Daddy, why can I go home and that man can’t?’”
Because his daddy threw him out for asking stupid questions.
That would be the appropriate response, but it is hard to believe a kid ever said any such thing during a visit to the penitentiary. To know a man can’t go home is to know why.
Still, it may be, as Cain also avers, that kids who have seen the inside of a prison will have more incentive to fly straight. Young offenders, given a tour of Angola and a lecture from an old con, have indeed often turned noticeably pensive, but most little kids attending the rodeo with daddy are probably not felon material anyway.
Fans flock to the rodeo not for an education but because the temptation to gawk at cons, though it may be unseemly, is irresistible, and all the more so when there is a chance one could be gored. That is most likely during the so-called poker competition, where a bull is released to charge at four inmates sitting around a table. The last one to bail out wins.
These may not be Spanish fighting bulls, but then convicts from say, the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, never had much a chance to pick up matador skills either. Come to think of it, taxpayers, having been royally ripped off by Broussard and Galvan, might prefer to see them playing rodeo poker.
Sadly, it won’t happen, for only Angola can put on a good enough rodeo to fill an 11,000-seat arena. If that happened at a federal pen, you’d figure they must have papered the joint, but bare-back horseriding and bull-dogging hold no terrors for the cream of Angola.
There is also a brisk trade in the arts and crafts that enable some inmates to earn a few bucks, but it is obviously the action in the arena that packs them in.
So the prisoners like the rodeo, the public likes the rodeo and Cain likes the rodeo. If other prisons really could do this, they probably would.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.