Good behavior evident at ‘Wildest Show’
“They (offenders) police themselves — they don’t want to mess up. But when you are dancing with a bear, keep your eyes on your partner at all times. ” Burl cain, warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola
ANGOLA — Traffic was backed up for miles on La. 66 Sunday as thousands of vehicles slowly entered Louisiana State Penitentiary for the 48th annual Angola Prison Rodeo.
Held every Sunday in October, the event dubbed “Wildest Show in the South,” features offender cowboys competing in crowd-pleasing events such as “bust out” bull riding and “convict poker,” where a raging bull demolishes the table, chairs and tosses players like rag dolls into the air with its horns. The last man seated wins and the crowd goes wild with applause.
The rodeo and accompanying arts and crafts sale hosted by hundreds of offenders has proven to be such a hit with the public that the 10,000-seat rodeo arena was sold out, said Warden Burl Cain.
“I liked the ‘bust out’ the best,” said Robert Brady, 12, of Ponchatoula, who was watching the rodeo events midway up the crowded bleachers. The “bust-out” is a bull riding event where eight bulls with eight riders are all released at once.
The men who are thrown earliest usually get trampled in the confusion by the other bulls trying to shake their own riders. Most riders, all wearing helmets and flak-jackets, escape serious injury but this time, one offender had to be helped out of the muddy arena and hauled away in an ambulance.
“I liked the convict poker best,” added Jake Daugherty, also 12, Brady’s friend and also from Ponchatoula. He’d visited the rodeo six times, he said.
In between bareback riding, bulldogging and wild horse races, young girls, associated with nearby organizations, competed in barrel racing and the “Ghost Riders,” a team of border collie dogs with monkeys for riders rounded up a flock of goats.
John Payne, “the one armed-bandit,” rode his two trained American bison and a large mule up and over his truck and livestock trailer. He lost his right hand as a young man in a farm accident and is a popular attraction at rodeos from coast to coast.
Before the rodeo, visitors crowded a sprawling midway packed with offender-manned booths selling all sorts of food, arts and crafts.
The profits from the events gate sales, at $15 per ticket, goes into offender re-entry programs, Warden Cain said, “which saves taxpayers a lot of dollars.”
“It also shows the public how we do spend their dollars because the prison looks good and it shows them the inmates are well-behaved (and) worthy of the visit — for people to come see them,” Cain said. Despite the fact that thousands of civilians were peacefully mingling with hundreds of offenders, all wearing black and white striped shirts, security was tight, Cain said.
The entire midway was constantly monitored by dozens of security cameras, uniformed guards were everywhere and an untold number of guards discreetly wearing street clothes kept their eyes peeled for any infraction.
“They (offenders) police themselves — they don‘t want to mess up,” Cain said. “But when you are dancing with a bear, keep your eyes on your partner at all times.”
Kerry Myers, editor of The Angolite, the prison’s award-winning magazine, helped several visitors fill out subscription orders. He’d sold about 20 so far this month, he said, and circulation, nationally, has grown to just over 1,400.
“A lot of people have heard about the magazine and are interested in it,” Myers said.
Kyle Hebert, an Angolite writer and photographer, said inmates appreciated the visitors because “they chose to come spend a day with us at the prison when they could have been doing anything else anywhere else.”
“It really gives us hope,” Hebert said. “A lot of people have a figment of their imagination watching movies and reading books. This changes their paradigm that shows we are men, not (the) animals that the media portrays us.”
Further up the midway, visitors were climbing aboard “Blue Duck,” a docile Texas Longhorn steer sporting four-foot wide horns, and posing for photos being taken by Brian Patton, owner of Patton’s Western Wear.
“Most people think he’s fake he stands so still,” Patton said. “People from the city have never seen a Longhorn up close and we get a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’”
Cassidy Brecheen, 15, and her brother, Dylan Gill, 9, from Greensburg, slowly and carefully mounted the steer, briefly posed and then gingerly climbed off him.
“It hurt — he’s bony,” Gill said. “It felt weird,” his sister added.
“OK, let’s go find the fried Snickers,” mom Darlene Gill said.
The thousands of offenders who are not involved in the rodeo or arts and crafts booths remain locked up in the six “camps” scattered across the 18,000-acre maximum security prison. The state recently closed the C. Paul Phelps Correctional Center at De Quincy and those 942 offenders were transferred to Angola, bringing the total population to 6,237, Cain said.
Once known as “America’s bloodiest prison,” Angola is now a model of positive change that is being copied across the nation, Cain said. Although more than 4,000 offenders are serving life sentences, violence is almost non-existent and the offenders do not even swear, Cain said. Prison chaplains estimate more than 1,200 of them are Christians, thanks to a wide array of religious programs.