Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Ride 'Em Convict

By Matt Hanks

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Way down Highway 61, just over the Louisiana line, lies the tiny town of Angola and the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The LSP is known for several things. For much of this century it was considered the most dangerous and inhumane prison in the country, reaching a lethal peak in the '70s. The LSP also boasts the most highly regarded, and only completely uncensored newspaper in the history of prison publications, The Angolite. The town and prison have even received the celluloid treatment in films like Dead Man Walking and JFK.

But one of the hidden treasures of Angola, one of the truly remarkable vestiges of the Old South, is the Prison Rodeo held every Sunday in October. The inmate rodeo used to be a fairly pervasive event in America's Southern prisons, but in recent years it's been deemed cruel and unusual -- or at least politically incorrect -- and the Angola Prison Rodeo now stands as the only remaining one of its kind.

The Prison Rodeo is like a maximum-security Renaissance fair. Food booths surround the gaming arena, offering the usual fair fare along with regional favorites like jambalaya and Frito pie. The bazaar section boasts an array of inmate crafts -- leather Bible cases, keyrings, ducks-on-a-stick with flapping rubber feet. The inmates stand behind a chain-link fence with hands cuffed, hawking their wares to passersby on the proverbial other side. From atop a 30-foot-high platform, the inmate band plays a selection of classics, from the expected ("In the Jailhouse Now") to the ironic ("Ramblin' Man"). Murderers, rapists, and law-abiding families of four stroll the grounds in close proximity. And everyone enjoys themselves.

The rodeo itself is also a mix of the traditional and the absurd. Most of the participating inmates come from urban climes and have never even ridden a mechanical bull, to say nothing of a live one. Speaking of which, we're not talking about junior grade, runt-of-the-litter bulls here. These are the same animals that are used in professional events -- evil beasts with massive girths, frothing noses, and impaling horns. This mix of inexperience and extreme hazard has led to several injuries, and, in the rodeo's 33-year history, one death. The EMS truck just outside the arena gates stays full all day long.

But the unlikely participants are only half the story. The events, some of them bordering on medieval, are also unique to Angola. The newest among these is "Convict Poker." Dreamt up by a (most likely disgruntled) prison guard, the rules of this game are simple. Four convicts sit at a table in the center of the arena and a bull is released. As it approaches, the inmates pit their wills in a perverse game of chicken. Whoever stays seated longest wins.

Then there's the "Guts and Glory Challenge," the finale of every Prison Rodeo and an event so sacred it requires its own bull. Not coincidentally, said bull is the biggest and meanest of the lot. The bull enters the ring with horns painted bright orange and a $100 chit tied to its brow. A group of inmates are given three minutes to descend on the beast and nab the chit. Considering that most inmates at Angola are paid an hourly wage of 4 cents, "Guts and Glory" is a shot at the fastest cash they're likely to make for the rest of their lives. And after all, the medical care is free. In their eyes it's a no-lose situation.

Warden Burl Cain sees the Prison Rodeo not as an archaic ritual, but as a golden PR opportunity. And he's not one to shy away from criticisms that his blessed event is racist, or even barbaric. In fact, he's not a shy man at all. "I'm from Vernon Parish, Louisiana," he told me around this time last year, "home of pine trees and poor folks. I was raised on a farm, and I love horses, so the rodeo is one of my favorite times of year. I think I could speak for the inmates when I say that too. The hardest job [at the prison] is to bring down despair. The rodeo gives these guys a chance to be king for a day. Everybody deserves that. It's not barbaric. For most of these guys, it's the highlight of their year."

The last Prison Rodeo of 1997 takes place on October 26th on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Events start at 2 p.m., but if you're serious about going, plan to arrive at 11 a.m. when the gates open, as it will surely sell out. Call 504-655-4411 for more information.

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