One day of 'freedom'
Country’s last major prison rodeo draws fans from across the state, world.
ANGOLA, La. — Marlon Brown doesn’t flinch when the bull bursts out of the gate.
Dirt flies as 2,500 pounds of writhing animal charge across the arena. But Brown, known here simply as Tank, runs toward the action, not away. He wants the red poker chip tied to the bull’s forehead.
By the time the dust settles on a blustery Sunday afternoon in October, he’ll have it, too. Since Tank started competing in the Guts & Glory event at the Angola Prison Rodeo 10 years ago, he’s won it 20 times, more than anyone else.
His trick to success? “Just go get” the chip, he says. “There ain’t no secret.”
Tank is serving a life sentence for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. About 6,300 offenders live here. Most, like Tank, are long-term inmates, serving sentences of 30 years to life in what was once known as “America’s Bloodiest Prison.”
For a few days each April and October, some of them don black-and-white striped shirts and compete in events like bull and bronc riding, wild cow milking and convict poker, where four men sit at a flimsy table as a bull rushes at them. The last one seated wins; the table and chairs don’t always survive the contest. The crowd roars when a bull sends an inmate sailing, adding a gladiator-esque feel to the show.
To these men, though, rodeo day ranks up there with Super Bowl Sunday. It’s a rare chance to hear cheers and encouragement from people outside prison confines — and precious time away from the grind of prison life.
“To me, yeah, it’s a little escape for a little while," Tank says. "You free your mind. Other than that, it’s right back to reality.”
The rodeo began in 1964 as a small, in-house prison entertainment event. It stands today as the only remaining rodeo at a major U.S. prison, selling out performances and drawing visitors from across the state and around the world. Even Texas, which ran a prison rodeo in Huntsville for 55 years, shut down its event in 1986, when the arena closed because of structural problems and the state Legislature opted not to pay for repairs.
The Angola rodeo, known as “the Wildest Show in the South,” unfolds in an 11,000-seat arena built by inmates in 2007. Bands made up of inmates perform on the grounds, while offender-run food booths peddle everything from fried alligator tail to jambalaya and cracklings. A sprawling arts-and-crafts show, where visitors can buy jewelry, leather goods, paintings, toys and wooden furniture made by prisoners, draws almost as much attention as the rip-roaring action in the arena.
“You can’t go anywhere else in the world and see this,” says Head Warden Burl Cain, the longest-serving head warden at a prison in the United States, who took over Angola in January 1995.
No tax dollars are used to stage the show. Operating funds come from rodeo proceeds; the event brings in about $500,000 a day. A portion of profits is also used to promote moral rehabilitation programs and re-entry initiatives at the prison and at others across Louisiana, Cain says.
At Angola Prison Rodeo, inmates become rodeo stars for a day. See more photos here.
For inmates, participation in the rodeo is voluntary, and more apply to compete than the event can handle. They wear helmets, face shields and chest protectors for the roughest events, but most of the men have never been around a rodeo or ridden a bucking animal. Over the years, the litany of injuries has included broken bones and gouged limbs, but nothing debilitating, officials say.
“We don’t want anybody hurt because it costs us lots of money,” Cain says.
Point of view from a bull ride
The bucolic setting and festive atmosphere of the rodeo belie a harsh history. The prison compound covers 18,000 acres, bordered on three sides by a bend in the Mississippi River. For many offenders, the drive to the facility at the end of Highway 66 — a half-hour north of the quaint town of St. Francisville — marks the last trip they’ll take outside razor-wire fences. Murderers, rapists and armed robbers serve out long sentences here. Angola houses more inmates serving life sentences than any other American prison.
The compound sits on what was once known as Angola Plantation, named for the home country of the slaves who worked it. It operates today as a working farm, with 3,000 cattle and 5,000 acres of row crops that produce 4 million pounds of vegetables fed to inmates at Louisiana prisons. The state execution chamber is here, and its death row houses 85 inmates, including Derrick Todd Lee, a serial killer linked to the deaths of seven women. Sister Helen Prejean’s visits to Angola inmates inspired the movie “Dead Man Walking.”
Rates of inmate violence were high and sexual slavery was rampant in the 1960s and ’70s, but those numbers have dropped 85 percent since Cain, a devout Christian with a wave of white hair and a Southern drawl, became warden. He attributes the turnaround to a partnership, started in 1996, with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which offers ministry degrees to inmates. He says he believes the fastest way to rehabilitate the inmates — even the lifers — is through religion.
“It doesn’t matter which religion. I could care less,” Cain says. “We find morality quickest through religion. And moral people don’t rape, murder or steal.”
Cain says the rodeo brings no negatives — only positives — to the facility.
“We’ve never had an incident here with an inmate and the public,” Cain says. The biggest problem, he says, is not violence from the inmates, but shoplifting of inmates’ work by outsiders. “What (the rodeo) does is pay for our vocational schools and save tax dollars. It’s also an entrepreneur program to teach inmates.”
- Head Warden Burl Cain
The show itself is a spectacle, with a grand entry parade, rodeo clowns and acts featuring Wild West performers and a buffalo that climbs onto an 18-wheeler. News crews from as far away as Denmark filmed the action this year. Spectators include family members of inmates and offenders from other prisons, who watch from behind a chain link fence.
“This has turned into not only a prison tradition, but a Louisiana tradition,” communications specialist Gary Young says.
Jonathan Rosalie, 35, is competing in an event called pinball, in which offenders stand in the center of plastic hoops on the ground around the arena. A bull lunges into the pen, and the last man to step out of his hoop wins.
“I look forward to it,” says Rosalie, who is serving two life sentences for suffocating a quadriplegic man and also beating the man’s caretaker to death. “It gives us a chance to do something positive. We’re trying to morally uplift our camp, so it’s a good thing.”
Rosalie says when he steps into the arena he expects to get hit by a bull. He just stands as still as possible, in hopes the bull will run at him and turn away at the last minute.
“Maybe it’s the old Roman blood. It makes your adrenaline pump,” he says. “We’re wrestling with beasts. It’s exciting.”
Jonathan Rosalie competes in the Guts & Glory event
Other inmates focus their attention on less risky endeavors, selling wares they’ve made in clubs or workshops within the prison to crowds of spectators. Those with trusty status sit behind tables; others watch from behind chain-link fencing.
“A lot send money home. It’s a way to send something back to their family,” says classification officer Francis Abbott. “It says ‘I’m in prison, but I’m a man and I still make a living for myself.’”
Clarence Williams, 43, is peddling leather wallets and purses, some made with the hides of alligators harvested on the prison grounds. He’s served 18 years for drug possession with attempt to distribute. He’s studying automotive technology at the prison and hopes to earn a mechanic’s certificate before he’s released in six years.
“Angola has changed my whole outlook,” he says.
For Robert Bone, 42, the rodeo offers a chance to show a skill he never knew he had before he earned a life sentence for killing a 23-year-old woman in 1996. He sells paintings of New Orleans streetcars — scenes he remembers from his youth.
“You reap what you sow here,” Bone says. “I’ve done a lot of great stuff since being incarcerated. I can’t right my wrong, but I can make my life mean something.”
For him, that’s being known for a few days a year as an artist, not just a convict. For prison officials like Cain, that motivation — a peek at life outside the bars, a moment of glory on a bull or making a few dollars selling art — puts a little meaning back in lives that once had none.