The arena could pass for any other rodeo in the U.S., with thousands of cheering spectators whooping and hollering in the stands as cowboys mount their bulls. But when the gates swing open and angry bulls charge out, these cowboys aren’t wearing wide-brimmed hats and spurs. Instead, they’re clad in black and white stripes and prison-issued jeans, the latest contestants in a “guts and glory” highly-prized competition at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
It’s the Angola Prison Rodeo and tomorrow it opens its gates for its 50th year. A sold out crowd nearing 10,000 spectators will watch inmates this weekend compete in rodeo events like convict poker where “four inmate cowboys sit at a table in the middle of the arena playing a friendly game of poker.” Then, “suddenly, a wild bull is released with the sole purpose of unseating the poker players.”
There’s also the popular “dangerous” bull riding event where “inexperienced inmates sit on top of a 2,000 pound Brahma bull” and wild cow milking where “teams of inmate cowboys chase the animals around the arena trying to extract a little milk.”
“It’s a wonderful morale booster,” said Gloria Hultz, executive director of the North American Association of Wardens & Superintendents. “The inmates are very excited and very proud to be in this rodeo. It’s an honor.”
Locals also say it’s a wildly popular community event, even with its own Yelp review page with praise for its entertainment value. “It’s a rodeo unlike any other and one I will never forget,” says one review. Another calls it “surreal.”
In addition to the rodeo, prisoners at the maximum security facility also sell their own crafts and food.
But is not without its share of controversy, and concerns for inmate and animal safety have shut down other prison rodeos across the country, leaving Angola the last remaining.
“A lot of people go to see the inmates get hurt,” said Stephen Bright of Yale Law School and the Southern Center for Human Rights. “There is no justification for dangerous events that are not part of a regular rodeo except to exploit the inmates.”
Assistant warden Cathy Fontenot acknowledged inmate broken bones and previous fatalities, but said safety improvements, including a new arena in 2000, have been made since the last previous death in the 1980s.
“Rodeo is a dangerous sport,” said Fontenot. “But in terms of what we have to protect the inmates, we have all the helmets and chest protectors needed.”
As for security, the prison says it relies on camera technology, guard-staffed towers, tactical units from other nearby prisons and drug dogs.
“We’ve got cameras everywhere that money is exchanged,” said Fontenot.
The rodeo is held at the prison in April and October each year and last year alone raised $5 million collectively. The inmates who earn the most are those who paint exceptional art pieces and sell them, said Fontenot, and many inmates send the money home to their families.
“I’ve seen inmates make thousands of dollars on a day,” she added.
Over 2,000 inmates will be participating in the various events tomorrow, 150 of them take part in the rodeo itself.
While some are serving life sentences, they must come from the general population, and Fontenot noted pedophiles are prohibited. She said the rodeo helps keep conduct records up throughout the year so that inmates don’t lose the privilege of attending.
The inmates, said Fontenot, “know what this rodeo means to them and not to mess up.”