Guts and Glory
ANGOLA — A sold out crowd cheered as Angola inmates stared down bulls, wrestled calves and attempted to “milk” wild cows Sunday.
The Angola Prison Rodeo, the event dubbed “Wildest Show in the South,” also features traditional standbys such as bull riding and bareback horse riding, but many events are unique.
The rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is held every Sunday in October and raises $225,000 to $250,000 each year, Warden Burl Cain said. The money is used to support a re-entry program that helps supports offenders who are going back “to the streets.”
Sunday’s event was sold out, meaning the 11,000-seat arena was full.
Tickets for the hobby craft area were the only ones still available.
During the “poker” competition, four inmates sat around a card table and tried to hold onto their chairs as a bull raced out of the gate toward the players.
Many of the inmates jumped the fence to safety before the bull came near enough to charge.
The last offender sitting, or at least holding a chair against his backside, was the winner.
In the traditional rodeo sport of bulldogging, cowboys rope calves from horseback.
At Angola, bulldoggers don’t ride horses and must wrestle the 200-300 pound animals to the ground with their hands.
“People get hurt because they don’t pay enough attention to the calf when it’s on the ground and get kicked,” inmate Aldric Lathen said.
For Lathen, the rodeo is about “pride, money, belt buckles and bragging rights.”
He wore an oversize belt buckle engraved with his name, which he won at last year’s rodeo.
Before being incarcerated, Lathen rode horses with his family for fun.
He is serving a 65-year sentence for armed robbery and has been locked up for 15 1/2 years , nine of which he has spent at Angola.
Winning money at the rodeo helps him stay financially independent from his family, which is especially important now that his grandmother is sick, he said.
Lathen has participated in the rodeo for 6 years. His first event was convict poker and he didn’t do very well.
“I got bent up real bad,” he said.
Lathen’s day-to-day job at Angola is mowing and landscaping.
When he first arrived at the prison, he had to work on the farm, picking greens and okra.
Lathen hopes to someday become a trusty and eventually to be paroled.
Before and after the rodeo, hundreds of inmates sell concessions in the arts and crafts area, varying from pig tails to cola-infused beignets as well as crafts such as furniture and paintings.
Carnival rides for children also are in the arts and crafts area along with food booths.
The prison keeps 11 percent of the earnings for upkeep of the craft work areas and the inmates must pay taxes and credit card transaction fees.
The rest goes into their prison bank accounts, Cain said.
Some inmates in the arts and crafts area are allowed to interact with the public, while others sell their wares from behind a chain link fence.
Inmate James “Tennessee” Mysinger has been selling his woodcrafts at the rodeo for 18 years.
He decided to focus on wooden Christmas ornaments 15 years ago because no one else was making them.
He carves the intricately detailed wood pieces using a scroll saw, following patterns that he buys from craft magazines. Sometimes he alters the designs to create unique pieces.
Mysinger is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and has been at Angola for 22 years. He is a “social mentor,” instructing other inmates in areas such as parenting and anger management.
“I teach ‘non-life’ skills. How not to get life in prison,” he said.
Mysinger’s hobby helps him give back to society.
He donates some of his ornaments to the United Way and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in New York.
The proceeds from his sales at the rodeo also allow him to send money to his daughter in Great Britain and pay for phone calls to her.
“It’s not right for us to be a burden on (our relatives). We’re the ones who committed the crimes and are doing the time,” he said.
The work keeps Mysinger sane.
“It gets stressful in here. I can go into the shop and put my headphones on. It also keeps me out of trouble,” he said.
The rodeo is for the inmates to show that they really can be rehabilitated and change, Cain said. In his 19 years on the job, there has never been a security issue at the rodeo.
“Most prisons could do this if they wanted to,” Cain said.
The rodeo makes the prison safer because it gives inmates entrepreneurial skills.
The event is educational for the public too.
“I love it when people bring young kids here,” Cain said, “because they ask, ‘Daddy, why can I go home and that man can’t?’”
Seeing the prisoners firsthand shows children the value of following the rules and staying out of trouble, Cain said.