Bucking the trend. The Angola Prison Rodeo. (Credit:Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

May 1, 2023   6 mins

As the Pink Panther theme tune stretches the limits of the loudspeakers, four prison inmates wearing bulletproof vests and baseball catchers’ masks make their way into the muddy rodeo arena. Carrying a red wooden table and plastic folded chairs, they’re setting up for a game of “Convict Poker”, described in last weekend’s Angola Prison Rodeo programme as “definitely not for the faint of heart”. An angry, 1,500-pound bull is about to be released into the arena, and three professional rodeo clowns are on hand to cajole him towards the poker table. “In this wild card game, a full ton of muscled madness calls all bluffs!” the programme cheerily states. The winner of Convict Poker and its $100 cash prize is the contestant who keeps his hands on the table for the longest.

Around me, an audience of 10,000 eager fans is going wild. It’s uncertain whether they’re behind the inmates or the bull. “This is suicide right here,” says a man seated behind me as the gate swings open and the beast begins his charge. “These boys are soldiers,” his friend replies. In one swift move of the head, the bull both overturns the table — which comes apart spectacularly — and sends a chair with contestant 11 up into the air. Upon his return to earth, he’s trampled by the animal, and badly hurt. Inmates, who have 59 years’ worth of prison rodeo folklore to draw on, know how to protect themselves: they bury their faces into the mud and put their arms round the back of their heads, while the clowns distract the raging bull.

But number 11 can’t muster any resistance; he is limp, arms splayed. Concerned clowns form a small human shield around him. The trouble is, the red rags hanging out of their back pockets are there to attract the bull their way. The beast begins charging towards the stricken prisoner and his comical guard. The arena goes quiet.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola Prison, lies some 130 miles northwest of New Orleans; the country road leading there is littered with roadkill and Baptist churches. Either side are the relics of antebellum Angola Plantations — worked by slaves born in the African nation — to which the prison’s name nods. Sometimes referred to the “Alcatraz of the South”, locals simply call it “The Farm”.

Those locals include 3,900 inmates, but also 1,800 staff members — many of whom live with their families in what is effectively a gated community on the prison grounds, called the B-Line. Jobs at the prison, which start at $14.55 per hour, come with around $100 a month in “location pay”. (They are usually passed down the generations.) This small, company town in the middle of the sprawling 7,000-hectare penitentiary site, has its own parks, swimming pool, tennis court and fishing lake. It also boasts a nine-hole Prison View Golf Course: any member of the law-abiding public can, for a fee, play a round in the largest maximum-security facility in the United States.

But nothing draws in the crowds quite like the Rodeo. Six are held each year, in April and October; between them, they attract more than 70,000 spectators. Around 1,000 prisoners participate, though only a few dozen are actually competing in the arena. The rest mingle freely with the crowds in the fairground, selling impressive artisan goods, from leather handbags to handmade wooden porch swings. Angola is known to be a fun family day out, with children’s rides and petting zoos. The Dale Carnegie organisation sells slushies. You almost forget you’re surrounded by people serving life sentences. But when I asked why a small number of prisoners were selling their handicrafts from behind a wire fence, one old hand explained: “They’re the ones not allowed anywhere near women and children.”

Not unreasonably, critics of mass incarceration — including the odd prisoner — argue that the Rodeo is exploitative, a Roman spectacle in which inmates must perform for the enjoyment of the public. The events, particularly Convict Poker, seem designed to place the men in danger, and medical care in the prison is notoriously poor.

But the inmates themselves are usually the first to push back against this argument. Myron Smith was winner of 2019’s “Guts & Glory”, the flagship final event, where prisoners have three minutes to corner a bull and snatch the red poker chip tied between its horns. “It’s actually a nice rush,” he said. “Kind of takes your mind away from other things, issues and stuff going on.” Not only do you get to impress your family members, some of whom travel from all over the country to watch their loved ones compete, but you can give something back: victory comes with $500. “I wanted to help my family out,” Smith said.

I asked another inmate, an artist who goes by only the name of Charlie (“like Prince”), whether he thinks the Rodeo is put on for the benefit of the spectators or the prisoners. “Well, the simple answer is both,” he said. “But I think it’s more for the inmates. It gives you something to look forward to — and we don’t got much of that — and it’s good for the prison economy.”

Winston Craddock, a talented woodworker and convicted murderer who carves bowls, explained that he made about five grand in sales the day before. Inmates have to give over 22% of their earnings to the prison. The rest they get to keep for themselves to pay for things inside — from the “stamps” required to send emails to snacks. For its part, the prison says that the $450,000 it collects each day from the Rodeo “pays for Baptist seminary classes at the prison, funerals for inmates, educational programs, and maintenance of the prison’s six chapels”. Well, in theory. In 2017, it was discovered that millions of dollars raised from the Rodeo were being kept in a private account, and $28,000 in concession sales had gone missing entirely.

The Rodeo also draws attention to some of the more obvious inequalities in the American prison system. Walking round the sites, it’s noticeable that a hugely disproportionate number of Angola’s inmates are black. Around 75% are from African-American backgrounds, more than double the equivalent figure for the whole state. It’s also striking that dozens of those hawking goods at the fair were old men in wheelchairs. The life sentences liberally dished up during the Eighties’ war on drugs mean that some 800 Angola inmates are aged over-60, and 300 of those are over-70. Angola has been described by one campaigner as “a very expensive nursing home”. A recent edition of prison news magazine, The Angolite, published a story about the ageing population, with administrators looking for ways to “keep senior prison inmates engaged” with things such as bingo nights.

Their plight is a reminder that the war on drugs may have slowed down, but America’s prison industrial complex isn’t going anywhere. The number of incarcerated people has increased by 700% since 1970, and it is a $260 billion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people. Even state-run facilities such as Angola provide exceptionally cheap labour, with inmates generating billions each year in revenue, while earning pennies on the dollar.

The state of Louisiana is in the grip of a gun crime epidemic, and New Orleans has recently reclaimed the title of America’s murder capital. (It is the only non-Mexican city in the global top 10 for homicides per capita.) Unless the authorities make a concerted effort to change this status quo, a steady stream of disadvantaged young men, caught up in senseless gang violence, will ensure that Angola’s declining stock is replenished — and keep the prison Rodeo on the road.

When I was about to leave, Winston Craddock took me aside to deliver a parting message. “You gotta be careful down there in Orleans,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.” The depressing fact is that, life outside isn’t much safer for many of these inmates, even if prison puts them in an arena with an enraged bull. Earlier in the day, only a bound or two short of carnage, a clown had stepped in front of contestant 11 and darted to the side, distracting the bull to a safe distance. Thousands of spectators clutching oversized sodas let out a sigh of relief. “Folks, a little healing power in your hands right now, right here,” boomed the announcer, urging applause as helpers rushed towards contestant 11. When they couldn’t get him onto his own two feet, they dragged him from the arena.

My programme notes inform me that this inmate is Cedric Carter. For understandable reasons, his name isn’t accompanied by a bio, but he has a profile on writeaprisoner.com, a website where people pay to invite citizens of the “free world” write to them. Carter is a 46-year-old bisexual Virgo who has been incarcerated since 1998 for armed robbery. Calling the prison to inquire about the man’s welfare, I’m told by one particularly surly warden that I won’t be provided with any information. Carter and his comrades are back to being numbers, until the Rodeo fires up again in October.

Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.