Thrown to the bulls: prisoners take part in maximum-security rodeo

 In the state of Louisiana, rodeos aren’t just for cowboys. Prison inmates get in on the action, too. At the Angola Rodeo, crowds go wild as men serving life sentences try to tame infuriated bulls.



In the state of Louisiana, rodeos aren’t just for cowboys. Prison inmates get in on the action, too. At the Angola Rodeo, crowds go wild as men serving life sentences try to tame infuriated bulls.


Every Sunday in October several thousand rodeo fans show up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola), the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. The first “prisoner rodeo” dates back to 1965. Participants – all voluntary – included not only inmates but prison employees, too. Two years later, the penitentiary opened the show to the public. Today, the arena can fit up to 7,500 spectators.


The event is organised in partnership with rodeo professionals; however, the inmates receive no training before they set foot in the arena. An emergency medical team is on hand throughout the show.


Prison authorities don’t hide the fact that the Angola Rodeo has become “big business” for them. Each rodeo day brings in at least 440 000 dollars (320 000 euros). This money goes toward inmate education and rehabilitation programmes, as well as Baptist seminaries, upkeep for the prison’s six chapels and inmates’ funerals.


Until now, there have been no life-threatening injuries.


"A country-fried version of Spartacus"


Vincent W. Maling works in sales in Birmingham, Alabama. He went to the Angola Rodeo for the first time in 2008, and has gone back twice since. This is his description of his first time.


Care to hazard a guess at how a ‘prison rodeo’ works? You got it: they throw a handful of inmates into a muddy rink and turn the bulls loose. Sure, there are rules and games and strategies, but it all pretty much amounts to good old-fashioned exploitation at the expense of our society’s deviants.


For the record, I cannot believe that this sort of thing goes on anywhere, let alone in a first-world country. But now that I've seen one, I’m glad it does. Kudos, Louisiana.


After purchasing a ticket – very reasonable at 10 dollars (7,30 euros), by the way – you walk through a couple of alarmingly casual security checkpoints and find yourself on the business side of the barbed wire. Inside, violent criminals peddle all manners of handicrafts, from furniture to art to leatherwork.


Photo posted on Facebook by Annie Wentzell.


"Inmates pitch their wares through chain links to passersby"


The more trustworthy convicts, ambiguously identified by their official rodeo t-shirts, mingle with the crowd. We even spoke with a murderer who had been in prison for over 40 years. I regret to say he wasn’t a very talented painter. Meanwhile, the less scrupulous inmates are kept behind a fence lined with display tables, where they pitch their wares through chain links to passersby.


Because this is Louisiana, there are also dozens of food stands and beverage kiosks (no alcohol), where the criminally culinary boil crawfish, grill hot dogs, and bake meat pies. Delicious, if suspicious.


"An angry bull comes careening out of its chute ... The object of the game is to be the last man sitting"


On to the rodeo itself. There were eight or ten games played; I'll highlight three. First, there’s ‘Convict Poker.’ Four inmate cowboys sit at a table in the middle of the rink, playing poker. They’re told to stay seated. Then an angry bull comes careening out of its chute, toppling the table and sending prisoners hurtling through the air. The object of the game is to be the last man sitting.


"Convict Poker."


Then, there’s ‘Wild Cow Milking.’ These aren’t your regular cows. These are massive, angry, aggressive steers, and this was definitely the most violent game played. The prisoners work in teams of two: one holds a 15-foot rope fastened to a wild cow. While he tries (and fails) to control the beast, his partner attempts to milk it. Eight teams work at once, which means that eight steer are bucking and thrashing and charging the inmates as well as each other. It’s total pandemonium. Needless to say, nobody won this game. After being dragged, kicked, rammed and manhandled, several inmates were carried off the field by medics.


"Guts and Glory." Video posted on October 5th 2010.


"Foiled by their animal opponents, prisoners are transformed into ambassadors of humanity"


The whole thing feels like an inbred, country-fried version of Spartacus. The winner of the final game even tosses his hard-earned chit up to the prison warden, who sits in a special box overlooking the whole violent spectacle alongside his wife and daughter.


So what makes the Angola Rodeo so thrilling? I suppose I could ramble on about our species’ innate sadism or the perverse extent to which we’ve fetishized the act of punishment. But there are better reasons.


We tend to think of our violent criminals as less human – that is to say, more animal – than the rest of us. For this reason, we’ve rendered prisoners virtually indistinguishable from livestock. We herd them like cattle. We feed them slop. We confine them to cages. We tag, brand, groom, and catalogue them.


But at the Angola Rodeo, where we pit them against real, bona fide beasts, they assume a different role altogether. Foiled by their animal opponents, they are transformed into ambassadors of humanity, reflections of society, extensions of the crowd itself. The Angola Rodeo is a celebration of the divide between us and everything else. It’s a tribute to our uniqueness, and a poignant reminder that all men, independent of their crimes, share the same fundamental identity.


I could be wrong. I might even have it backwards. Perhaps it’s how similar our prisoners and livestock are that captivate the audience. But I’ll say this: in the deafening roar of the crowd during that last bout, amidst all of the applause, the cheer, the gasps, not a single spectator was rooting for the bull. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself."


A poster featuring Coca-Cola, Angola Rodeo's main sponsor, is for sale on this website alongside T-shirts, DVDs, postcards and other souvenirs.

FRANCE24 journalist Ségolène Malterre contributed to this article.