Driving through the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or "Angola," is a chilling experience. After all, this is the "Alcatraz of the South," a Manhattan-sized compound in a remote area north of Baton Rouge. When we arrived, we tuned into KLAS 91.7 FM—the only prison radio station in the country—and an inmate DJ proceeded to string off a long list of trivia about the prison. We learned that Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the country, that it has the highest percentage of prisoners serving life without parole, and that it's so big that it's the only prison with its own zip code. It also has its own fully functioning rodeo.
Angola opened in 1901 on a former plantation estate, quickly establishing itself as one of the toughest penal institutions in the country, responsible for overseeing the hardest criminal elements in the South, in a state with notoriously rigid laws. Conditions up until the early 70s were often described as "medieval and squalid," and prisoner protests were common. The current warden, Burl Cain, operates Angola as a "working farm," one of the most efficient in the state, stressing that "keeping inmates busy and working is the most important thing we try to do."
"The rodeo, which was first started in 1967, continues on because we see it as a vital tradition and good reward for the inmates who deserve to be here today. It’s a big privilege to be allowed to take part in the rodeo, and they know that," said Warden Cain. "It also allows us to raise much needed funds for our rehabilitation programs."
Angola is home to 1,600 staff members and 6,200 inmates, 83 of them on Death Row. According to Louisiana State Penitentiary PR Director Gary Young, "On any given Sunday (or Saturday in April) there are approximately 160 offenders that participate in the event. There is no limit on how many can participate in each rodeo, however there are certain events [where] there are more request to participate than available slots allow. All applicants are accepted as long as they meet certain requirements, such as medical standards. They also have to be medium or minimum custody. No maximum custody are allowed to participate. All applicants are screened by security to ensure that they pose no security risk. There are approximately 1,500 offenders that participate in arts, crafts, bands and food support."
There are some 200 prison guard families living inside Angola, many of whom have lived on the grounds for generations. The last escape attempt took place in early September 2013, and two prisoners were apprehended three hours after the alarm went off. They had not even managed to make it off the 18,000 acres.
Lloyd "Bones" Bone has been a prisoner in Angola for 42 years. Bone was convicted for life with no parole for murdering another man in a knife fight in 1971. "I’m never leaving here," he said. Bones drives the prison horse-drawn hearse, which transports dead inmates (over 40 a year) to the prison graveyard.
The view from a guard’s tower over part of the craft section within the prison rodeo site. The prison has an entire manufacturing industry producing furniture, mattresses, brooms, and many other well-used items that keeps the Angola residents busy.
Inmates sell their furniture at the arts and crafts area behind the rodeo stadium. The arts and crafts items are sold by the prisoners, with all financial transactions overseen by the guards. Likewise, some inmates earn the right to the sell food and snacks at concession stands.
Brent, #576619, has been incarcerated for six years now and has been in Angola for two. He was caught by federal agents who raided his house and found 60 kilos of cocaine. "I was trying to make ends meet, but my greed took over." Brent competed in three events in the rodeo.
At the first rodeo, spectators sat on apple crates and the hoods of cars. The initial success led to the construction of a small arena in 1969. In the late 1990s, a trustee of the Irene and CB Pennington Foundation, Darryl Pennington, set the dream of a new, 10,000-seat multi-purpose arena in motion.
The official Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules were adopted in 1972, and organizers contract with professional rodeo stock providers for supplies, and hire professional judges and rodeo clowns. Even with all the precautions, one inmate said that, "It gets pretty crazy out there at times."
Joe, #509080, is serving life with no chance of parole for second degree murder. He is the reigning Angola Prison Rodeo Champion and dons a belt buckle to prove it. "I don’t have a pectoral muscle in my left shoulder. It got gored out a few years back by one of these bulls," he told me. "Last week, I won the pinball: last man standing in the hoop while the bulls charge us! Today, I’m going for ‘Guts and Glory’ prize. That’s where they put the chip on the bull’s forehead and we have to try get it. It’s $500 if you can pluck that chip." I told him that sounds dangerous, to which he replies, "Yeah, but what else am I gonna do? [That’s] a lot of money in Angola!"
Joe owns the 2012 Angola Prison Rodeo buckle.
Events include wild horse racing (three-man teams attempt to grab ropes dragged by six wild horses long enough for a team member to mount), bull-dogging (wrestling an animal to the ground), wild cow milking (exactly what it sounds like), and bull riding (participants must sit on a one-ton Brahma bull for six seconds.)
A prisoner fits himself with some studs for the arena. In the hours leading up to the rodeo, the inmates hung out in a fenced-off area next to the bulls and slowly prepared for the events.
Bryce, #582440, is 26-years-old and is serving life with no chance of parole. He has been at Angola for 3 years, and said it's the best prison he's been in. He's there for second-degree murder, but is trying to fight the charges. It was a bar-fight, someone threatened his brother, he pulled a gun, it dropped and fired. The stray bullet killed a man. The original charge was manslaughter, but, as Bryce said, "This is Louisiana." I asked Bryce how he survives knowing he'll never return to the outside world. "How do I keep going? It’s all about respect in here. As long as I respect the next man and don’t show weakness then it’s all fine. The rodeo is something I look forward to all year so I behave ‘cause this is a real privilege."
Participants were designated rodeo numbers and cordoned off in this guarded enclosure next to the bull pens.
An inmate takes a moment before changing into his stripes and taking part in the rodeo.
A bull rammed the "convict Poker" table, where the last man sitting wins $100. One inmate, Jamie, told us, "We are lining up to participate. It’s exciting knowing we are messing with these bulls. These animals are 1,800 pounds and so you gotta be real careful. These bulls take NO prisoners, even though we are prisoners. It’s about taking part… and hopefully winning some money!"
An inmate concentrates before the bulls are let loose. He says, "There will be injuries but these are risks worth taking."
"For many it was only ten seconds of madness that got them here..and now they here for the rest of their lives, That's hard for everyone in Angola to deal with but that's the reality here in Louisiana," says Warden Cain. And yet, men like Bryce and Joe are given so much to live for by being able to compete in the rodeo. The situation now is a far cry from the dark history of Angola.
The "Red Hat" cellblock is a reminder of, and vestige from, the past. The most restrictive inmate housing unit, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and named so for the red-painted hats that its occupants wore when working out in the fields. In 1933, Charlie Frazier, who ran with Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, escaped one of Red Hat's 30 cells. When caught, his cell door was welded shut, and remained that way until his death seven years later.
Just before the rodeo began, we asked Warden Cain about dealing with the dark legacy of Angola. "Angola is a prison with a rough past," he said. "We understand that, and we are doing things differently now. I didn’t put all these lifers here, I’m just the doorkeeper. My job is to keep them busy with work and education programs, and encourage some kind of faith. This rodeo gives the inmates some hope as well as raising much needed funds for those programs."
More prison stories: