ANGOLA, La. - By 9 a.m. the traffic was already snaking through the countryside, hundreds of Harleys, trucks, and minivans heading to a day of family fun. But it was not your typical weekend getaway. These thousands of people were driving toward the forbidding gates of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, among the largest maximum-security prisons in the country.
Whether inspired by curiosity or the chance to see a friend or family member, more than 10,000 people were holding $10 tickets to the 41st Annual Angola Prison Rodeo, billed as "the Wildest Show in the South." Once considered "the bloodiest prison in the South," Angola is a surprising setting for an event that is equal parts Wild West action, county fair, and flea market. The October event has become so popular that this year for the first time a spring rodeo was held in April.
Located about 60 miles north of the capital, Baton Rouge, and surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River, Angola casts a mighty shadow. It's the area's largest employer, with up to 1,700 guards and staff members on the payroll. The Farm, as it's known, sits on 18,000 acres, home to over 5,000 inmates, more than half of them confined for life without parole.
The rodeo is evidence of how far Angola has come since the prison's establishment in 1901, a positive sign that many locals and inmates attribute to the leadership of Burl Cain, the warden, who believes that inmates need hope to leave their violent pasts behind. "You can't change the past, only the future," is one of Cain's favorite sayings. His philosophy, chronicled in the book "Cain's Redemption: A Story of Hope and Transformation in America's Bloodiest Prison" (Northfield, 2005), is at the heart of the rodeo's success. "This is our chance to show the public that moral rehabilitation works, that this is a safe place," said Cain.
Inmates earn the privilege to work in the concession stands, perform in the prison band, or sell their crafts and artwork to the public. A few try their luck in the arena, avoiding two tons of Brahma bull or clinging to the back of a bucking bronco. Why do they do it? "It's a break from everyday routine. I do it for the belt buckle," said Allen "Foots" Charr, a two-time rodeo rider who owes his nickname to his size 15 feet. "It's a chance at guts and glory, an opportunity to better ourselves, thanks to Warden Cain." Besides earning the applause of the public, winners are awarded $100, which they can send home or use for incidentals.
Except for the search upon entering (no cellphones allowed), the guys walking around in black and white striped shirts, and, of course, the guards, who maintain a low-key presence, you wouldn't know you were in a prison setting. Music blares, a children's play area is set up next to a watchtower, and stand after stand of food concessions fill the air with the smells of cracklings frying and étouffée. The Angola potato man, Clyde Dwayne Richard, raps to passersby, "One potato, two potato, three potato, four . . ." His potatoes are delicious, buttery Idahos stuffed with crawfish, shrimp, sour cream, and boudin, a spicy Cajun sausage.
"The real story is that this rodeo works," said Kerry Myers, editor of the Angolite (another Cain initiative), the prison magazine with 1,200 paid subscribers beyond the prison gates. Myers is here for life, in his case on a conviction for second-degree murder. "We all have to live here until we die," said Myers. "Warden Cain's idea is for us to work at something productive, to give our life purpose and give us a sense of community. The rodeo is our chance to interact with people, to show them that we're human, we're people, too. The public thinks every prisoner is the worst guy. But that's not true."
Angola Bible College, an extension of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was established here in 1995, the year Cain was named warden, and it offers two- and four-year degrees. Cain insists that every man worship on a daily basis. "We find morality must come from religion," Cain said. "Whether you're Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, you need to practice your faith every day."
If anybody steps out of line during the rodeo, the event is canceled for all. "We call that behavior modification," he said. "It works."
A huge section of the fairgrounds is devoted to what the prisoners call their "hobby crafts," which range from wooden furniture to jewelry, paintings, and all things LSU (Louisiana State University is in Baton Rouge).
For Joe Greco, 41, a Louisiana native in Angola for 20 years, it's a chance to sell his furniture and earn some money to send to his family. Greco, who works as a prison carpenter and makes coffins for the inmates, recently had his murder conviction overturned. He sees his craft as a ticket out of Angola one day. "My grandfather made shrimping boats in South Louisiana. I was always around wood," he said.
C.R. Van Vorst, 54, from New York, is in for manslaughter and up for parole in six years. A fan of Salvador Dalí, he paints strange scenes rich with imagery.
Many inmates like Van Vorst and Greco are trustees and allowed to mix with the general population. Others, whether because of their behavior record or lack of seniority, sell their wares from behind a chain link fence. Prison staff handle all transactions. "You have to earn the right to sell your hobby craft," said Cain. "They have to buy their own supplies with the money they make."
A lot of people, like Terry and Annette Burns from Logansport, come for the arts and crafts. "We've been coming for eight years," said Terry. "We've bought rockers, picnic tables, there's always something new to look at."
But the main attraction is the show, which starts with an inmate prayer circle and a rousing version of the national anthem. A professional rodeo company provides most of the acts, which include a crowd favorite, a performance by Whiplash, a capuchin monkey who rides around on the back of a border collie while wearing full cowboy regalia.
The inmates get their moment in the spotlight with the chance to play a hair-raising game of Convict Poker (whoever is still sitting at the card table when the bull is released wins) and Bust Out All, with six chutes releasing six angry bulls at once, ridden, briefly, by prisoners. The finale, Guts & Glory, has inmates trying to snatch a poker chit from the back of a bull. "We have nothing to lose, right?" said inmate Willie Green. "Why not?"
The last stop of the day is the prison museum, established in 1998 by Cain. On display is everything from homemade weapons taken from inmates over the years to a replica of an electric chair - in use in Louisiana until 1991. The museum shop is the place to buy Guts & Glory hot sauce, made by the inmates from Angola-grown peppers, and T-shirts that say, "Angola: A Gated Community."
It's funny, as long as you can buy it and leave.
Beth D'Addono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.