Angola prison rodeo offers risks and rewards for Louisiana’s hard-knock lifers | The Knowledge Dynasty

Angola prison rodeo offers risks and rewards for Louisiana’s hard-knock lifers

Cash prizes and the chance to be treated like a regular person are the lure for inmates braving angry bulls and bucking horses at Louisianas biggest prison.

Four men wearing black-and-white stripes take their seats at a table. They have only a split second to brace themselves before a bull charges through the gate, flinging them into the air amid cheers from the 11,000-strong crowd.

When the dust settles, both the bull and the men return to their cages.

This is the Angola Prison Rodeo, a 53-year-old tradition at the biggest and most notorious prison in Louisiana, the incarceration capital of the world.

The prison rodeo is a distinctly American spin on the Roman Colosseum, and Angolas is the last remaining show in the country. For $20 a ticket, thousands flood into the 18,000-acre prison each Sunday in October and one weekend in April to watch inmates battle bucking horses and angry bulls.

Most are tossed to the ground immediately. Some break bones or worse. Those who manage to hang on are awarded varying amounts of cash depending on the riskiness of the event.

Theres convict poker, in which a bull is released on four inmates at a poker table. Whoever manages to stay in their chair the longest wins $250. The most dangerous event is guts and glory, where inmates try to pluck a poker chip from between the horns of a charging bull for a chance at the grand prize: $500.

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Most inmate riders are thrown to the ground immediately. Photograph: Gerrit de Heus/Alamy Stock Photo

When asked why he was participating in the rodeo, Aldrie Lathan had a blunt answer: Money.

Lathan, who is serving a 65-year sentence for armed robbery, has competed in the rodeo for nine years. Hes broken ribs, weathered concussions, and dislocated a shoulder. Still, he said, its most definitely worth it for the money.

After you get hit by a bull one time, you know what it feels like and you dont have that fear any more, he said.

Inmates receive no training before they go out to perform. Reports of serious injuries have resulted in helmets, mouthguards and vests for participants. These precautions are about the only way the tradition has evolved since it began in the 1960s. Since then, the audience has grown along with keen media attention the prison requires vigilant escorts for any press that comes through the gates, including the Guardian. These officials stress that professional cowboys and rodeo clowns are present at all times.

Despite the danger, theres always a waiting list of inmates who want to risk their bodies for a shot at a couple of hundred dollars.

I dont really have that much outside help, so instead of calling and asking family members for money, I come out and participate in the rodeo and try to do everything on my own, Lathan explained. Hes made more than $400 in just three Sundays.

Thats a windfall compared with what he can earn the rest of the year, when inmates are required to work for wages of between 2 cents and 75 cents an hour.

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After you get hit by a bull one time, you know what it feels like and you dont have that fear any more. Photograph: Gerrit de Heus/Alamy Stock Photo

This pay scale coupled with the fact that more than 75% of its 6,300 inmates are black is why Angola is frequently called a modern-day slave plantation. In fact, the prison inherited the name Angola from the working slave plantation it was before the civil war.

Prison officials are adamant that no one is forced to participate in the rodeo. But the economics of the prison system challenge the definition of choice.

The rodeo is the only chance most Angola inmates get to make a livable income and not just inside the arena. The inmates who have been in prison the longest without incident, called trustees, are allowed to sell their work, from snakeskin wallets to rocking chairs, at the craft fair outside the rodeo and mingle with attendees. Others who have not yet earned trustee status sell from behind a chain-link fence. These men can make thousands of dollars in one day.
Its a behavioral tool for us, said Gary Young, assistant warden for programming and communications director. We extract an awful lot of good behavior in exchange for a booth.

Rodeo revenue props up virtually all of the programs that shape inmates lives, including trade schools, activity clubs, an award-winning magazine, and the prison hospice. Many clubs set up rodeo concession stands, where they raise an estimated $80,000 a day.

Rodeo money even subsidizes the crown jewel of the department: the states six-year-old re-entry program, which puts eligible inmates in a GED program, and trains them for certification in a trade such as auto repair or air conditioner installation.

Severe budget cuts have created even more intense need. A prison closure in 2012 sent 1,000 additional inmates to Angola with no increased budget or staff, according to Francis Abbott, a corrections supervisor with the re-entry program.

Then, the states technical and community college system was hit with budget cuts, forcing it to pull educational staff out of the prison, Abbott said.

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Justin Singleton at the Angola rodeo. Photograph: Aviva Shen for the Guardian

What we had to do was look inward at our resources here, he said.

To reduce costs, prison officials replaced some of these community college instructors with inmates serving life sentences who had completed educational programs. Their pay 75 cents an hour is also subsidized by the rodeo.

These mentors are also the most likely to be allowed out on the rodeo grounds to mingle with outsiders. Justin Singleton, a 37-year-old lifer who teaches small engine repair skills, has a booth at the fair. He hopes to sell enough to send his 15-year-old daughter $400.

Not for school supplies, he said. Just because I love her and because Im her father.

Singleton said the rodeo also offered inmates something worth far more than money: a moment of humanity.

Here in Angola, you have very limited contact with the outside world and sometimes it can be a little depressing, Singleton said. So its encouraging when you come to the rodeo and see so many faces of people who are just happy to be here, treating you as if youre just a regular person. Which you are.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/29/angola-prison-rodeo-louisiana

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