The Bust Out happens without preamble. After 30 minutes of pageantry—a troupe of angelic girls on horseback swinging flags, a prison drill team sweeping and pinwheeling their horses down the length of the arena, the national anthem, and an extended prayer for protection—the polished, somewhat professional façade of the Angola Rodeo crumbles into mayhem. The ring’s eight chutes swing open, and eight bulls buck into the arena simultaneously, with the inmate riders in Kevlar and stripes flying in every direction like zebra-patterned popcorn. The crowd of 9,400 cringes and hoots as each man gets pile driven into the dirt then skitters comically for the fences.

It’s a shock, even for rodeo fans, to see the sport stripped to something so raw—or foolhardy. Some are wide-eyed, wondering if what they’re seeing is legal, others laugh at the slapstick and terrible form of the bull riders. (The vast majority of these cowboys-for-a-day have zero experience riding or handling livestock.) The events are man versus animal, without any pretense of skill, and that’s the reason a total of 50,000 people drive the narrow, winding road to Angola on Sundays in October (and one weekend in April) to watch the sold-out Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Prison Rodeo, the last prison rodeo in the United States. Part gladiator contest, part Stooges comedy, part tent revival, the so-called Angola Rodeo is the last vestige of a U.S. penal tradition that died out decades ago.

Like so many others, I came to Angola last October out of pure curiosity. Angola (the prison, a former plantation, got its nickname from the country where most of the 18th-century slaves originated from) is a storied part of Louisiana history—legendary as its darkest hole and more recently as a model for reform. I wanted to get a glimpse of life on the inside to see if it was possible that a rodeo could “restore a man,” as Warden Burl Cain had told me.

“It’s called ‘corrections’—we’re not just supposed to lock men up and feed them till they get out,” explained the warden. “We correct deviant behavior—make them better than we got them.”

But the Angola Rodeo is more nuanced than rehab-on-horseback. For some of the inmates it’s a welcome diversion from the routine of maximum-security prison life. It’s one of the only ways to remind the public that they exist at all inside the remote, 18,000-acre facility, where more than half of the 5,100 men inside are condemned to life sentences and will only leave in caskets. And while tourism from the event generates substantial cash for the local community, critics see it as exploitative.

The Angola rodeo calls itself the “Wildest Show in the South,” perhaps a play on its one-time infamy as the “bloodiest prison in the South.” Although there are standard rodeo events like bronc riding, bull riding, and bulldogging, this isn’t your typical Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA)-sanctioned rodeo. The most popular contests are unique to the prison and would get someone fired at another rodeo. There’s the Bust Out, Wild Cow Milking (exactly what it sounds like), Convict Poker (definitely not what it sounds like), Pinball (inmates stand in hula hoops and try not to move when a bull charges them) and the grand finale, Guts and Glory (where inmates run at the bull, instead of the other way around). Modest cash prizes are awarded for each event, and after the full October run, an All-Around champion wins the prison belt-buckle for accumulating the most points.

If some of the bronc riders and bull riders could have been mistaken as competent, the Buddy Pickup event quickly laid the Angola Rodeo bare. The idea is simple: One inmate rides a horse bareback across the arena to a partner standing on a barrel, who jumps onto the horse and holds tight as the pair gallop back. It quickly becomes obvious that most of the inmates have never ridden a horse—and definitely not bareback. Most slip off on the way down the arena; the few that do make it to the barrel are pulled off as their tentative partners try to jump aboard. Others manage to crash the horse into the dirt on the ride back. It was mildly embarrassing to watch, seeing them go down again and again, knowing that this was probably an important public moment for the riders.

Convict Poker was another crowd-pleaser. Introduced by Warden Cain in the mid-1990s, it’s been a mainstay ever since. Four inmates, all in dealer vests, take a seat and lay their arms forward on a resin table. The last one to move after the bull is let loose wins $200, a fortune in a place where inmates are paid between four and 20 cents an hour for their labor.

When the bull is led out of the stall it just stands there, looking at the four men who all stare at their hands. Behind the men, one of the clowns taunts the bull until he lowers his head and charges. It’s so fast that it’s hard to see what happens next: The plastic table and chairs splinter into a spray of white shards, and the inmates run panicked back to the paddock as the clowns try to draw the bull away. One of the inmates is dragged by his vest to the sidelines. Another table is set out in the dirt, and a second group of contestants is led out.

“The overall grit and determination of those guys have just amazes me,” says Bubba Dunn, a former PBR rider who now stocks the bulls for the Angola rodeo. “In some ways, they have a lot more guts than outside people. There’s a few guys down there, provided they stayed straight, that I could see potentially making a professional rodeo.”

Of course, no Angola cowboy has ever gone on to the professional rodeo circuit. Most will never make it out of prison alive.

The prison took shape as a camp for captured Union soldiers during the Civil War, then it was run as a private penitentiary for the last part of the 19th century before the state of Louisiana took over in 1901. For most of the 20th century, the place was known as one of the worst spots in the nation’s prison system. (Think Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, not Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.)

In 1952, 31 inmates slit their own Achilles tendons to bring attention to the prison’s inhumane conditions. In 1975, a rash of murders, rape, gang violence, segregation, and other problems led a judge to write that the prison “shocked the conscience” and that simply being an inmate at Angola violated the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The prison was put under federal oversight, but it still took decades to clean up the violence and mayhem. From 1989 to 1991 Angola was put in a state of emergency after a spate of suicides and violence.

Through it all, though, the rodeo kept on. As the story goes, in 1964, a few rodeo-minded staff and inmates decided to set up an impromptu contest for their own amusement, using stock brought in by a contractor. The event had drawn some local interest by 1967, and the public was first allowed in to watch, sitting on apple crates on the sidelines. The rodeo show became popular enough that in 1969 inmates built a 4,500-seat arena dedicated to the event (though part of the bleachers collapsed during a show).

In the late 60s and early 70s, former rodeo great Jack Favor served several years in the prison after a murder conviction and helped to raise the quality of the show. (PRCA rules were adopted for the standard events in 1972.) Under Burl Cain, a reform-minded warden with a strong evangelical bent who took over in the mid-1990s, The Farm, as Angola is also known, began marketing the rodeo more aggressively, hiring a professional production company and adding the Angola Inmates Arts Festival, where people can buy inmate furniture, paintings, carvings, and other handicrafts. The arena was expanded, and in 2000 a brand-new, 9,400-seat stadium was constructed by inmates—the envy of any small town fairground.

Go back a few of decades and the Angola Rodeo wasn’t as unique as it is today. The phenomenon started in Texas back in 1931, when Marshall Lee Simmons, manager of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, set up a rodeo program for inmates in the prison’s baseball stadium. The wild antics of the incarcerated cowboys—many of whom, unlike Angola’s inmates, had some experience with livestock—were enough to draw a crowd, and the first time he opened the doors, the ticket line stretched for two blocks.

By 1933, almost 15,000 people were showing up for the Sunday shows, and by the 1960s, the rodeo was drawing 100,000 people over its four-day run. The half-time concerts featured country stars like Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson.

The success of the Texas rodeo inspired a brief blossoming of imitators. During the 1970s Arkansas and North Dakota tried to establish rodeos, and there’s evidence that Mississippi, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana tried to get in on the act. But none of them took hold like the highly produced Texas event, and most of them folded after a few years. Even the Huntsville event eventually lost its momentum. Crowds began to dwindle, and though it was reportedly still profitable, the rodeo was cancelled in 1986 and the brick stadium condemned.

Senior Warden Jim Willett, who ran the Huntsville rodeo in the early 1980s and who currently operates the Texas Prison Museum, still isn’t sure exactly what happened. “Things were changing, and I really think the prison system wanted out of the rodeo business,” says Willett. “People have pestered them to start it again, but there’s zero chance of it ever coming back.”

Whatever the case, the changing face of incarceration has made prison rodeos questionable propositions. Today’s prisons are over-populated, and officials are less willing to coordinate big events that require public safety. The inmate population in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1980, requiring tighter budgets. Paying guards overtime to monitor rodeos has been an unwanted line item.

The Oklahoma Prison Rodeo, for example, would have celebrated its 70th anniversary in August 2010. But with Oklahoma’s state budget shortfall, the largest in the nation at 18 percent, the Department of Corrections nixed the guards needed to staff the rodeo in McAlester, effectively killing it.

The Angola Rodeo has lasted so long mainly because of the boosterism of Warden Cain, who touts it for his rehabilitation crusade. He also claims that the rodeo is a money-maker—estimates are that it grosses up to $450,000 per day. (Tickets are $10 each, with the Arts Festival contributing approximately three quarters of the total revenue.)

“We’ve shown we can rehabilitate these inmates, and that they’re not crazy wild people,” says Cain. “When I got here, I saw the rodeo and liked it. I saw the potential in it. It makes money for the Inmate Welfare Fund, it gives inmates something to do, and it entertains the public. I don’t see a negative in it.” As an example, the lucrative handicraft sales give inmates financial incentive to stay occupied and purposeful, therefore out of trouble.

Of course not everyone believes the rodeo has anything to do with redemption. Nancy Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology & Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, thinks the rodeo is a hold over from the prison’s more brutal past and is a metaphor for bigger problems.

“The roots of the prison industrial complex come out of the plantation,” she says. “It has a different name and a kinder, gentler slave master at the moment, but that’s what Angola is: It’s a plantation. What’s the appeal, then, of the rodeo, where mostly black participants are put at risk with untamed animals? It’s just kind of disturbing philosophically if you think about what that represents.”

Inmates are unquestionably put at risk, and paramedics routinely drag out trampled participants. There have been countless cracked ribs, broken hands and fingers, major lacerations, and one inmate in the 1970s was paralyzed by a bull. But year after year, the same inmates, and plenty of fresh meat, sign up to take on the bulls. (The rodeo is strictly voluntary.)

Danny Fabre, 48, has been at Angola since 1983. He’s convicted of beating a woman to death, and over the years, he’s gone through a host of classes and programs—AA, the JCs, Toastmasters—hoping that one day Louisiana would relax its stringent life-without-parole laws. He’s been trying to prepare for life on the outside and says that the rodeo has played a part in helping him.

“When I got here, those first eight years I had a bunch of fights,” Fabre remembers. Then he discovered the rodeo and has participated for the last 15 years.

Fabre has broken his ribs and fingers and caught a hoof to the backbone. The weekend I visit, he’s planning his last bronc ride.

“Warden Cain’s given us all an opportunity to do good for ourselves,” he says about those years spent anticipating a few seconds in the ring and the confidence and hope he gained from competing. “It’s time for me to give some younger guys a chance at the rodeo.” Now he plans to craft chairs for sale at the Inmate Arts Festival.

One of these younger guys is Mike McDaniel. Sentenced to life in Angola at the age of 16 for second-degree murder, the 32-year-old has been riding in the rodeo for the last ten years. McDaniel took the 2009 title after placing first in Convict Poker three times, Pin Ball three times, and winning bareback riding, wild horse racing, and bull riding. During his most recent bull ride, he got stomped and received 24 staples in his head.

“A lot of inmates are scared of the animals, but I’m not that scared of them. I don’t bother about getting hurt,” explains McDaniel, who plans on giving his All-Around buckle to his father. “I don’t know why I do it. It’s hard to say. Until this year and going for the All-Around, I was always just focused on the money.”

As the day winds down, I watch as two dozen inmates range out across the arena for the final event, Guts and Glory. A brahma bull, with his horns painted red, enters the arena. A wooden disc the size of a coffee saucer hangs from his forehead, and the inmate who snatches it from the bull wins $500.

The men in stripes creep like a pack of slinking wolves toward the bull, which backs up to the chutes. Then it bursts forward, charging through the crowd, sending the unprotected inmates scattering around the ring. The scene repeats itself: The wolves gingerly step to the bull before it charges again and again, sweeping them out of the way like rag dolls.

In a mad scrum, the inmates circle the bull, and someone yanks the big chip loose. He holds it above his head and trots around the arena. The crowd cheers briefly, but before the announcer says goodbye, I’m jostled toward the exit by everyone trying to beat the inevitable snarl of traffic.

The inmate doesn’t seem to mind, though. He keeps his prize aloft and takes his time to revel in the accomplishment, circling the arena to be seen by people from the outside. For a moment, he exists in the eyes of the free world before another long, hard year begins at Angola.

Jason Daley is a frequent contributor to national publications. He lives in Wisconsin.

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