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Tucson Weekly Captive Cowboys

The Louisiana State Prison at Angola is a place where many enter and few leave. But at least they have the rodeo spirit!

By Gregory McNamee

DECEMBER 14, 1998: 

God of the Rodeo, by Daniel Bergner (Crown Publishers). Cloth, $24.

ANGOLA, LOUISIANA, IS this nation's version of Devil's Island, a swampbound expanse of territory larger than Manhattan. The place, writes novelist Daniel Bergner (Moments of Favor), is also weirdly beautiful, a tropical wonderland of magnolias, oak, cypress, and crabapple--hardly the common version of hell.

Yet hell it surely is. Bergner writes of incarcerated men who, for entertainment and revenge, fling feces at one another, slash out with homemade weapons, kill and maim. Considered the toughest prison in a state that Bergner says has "a good claim to the toughest sentencing laws in the nation," Angola is a place where many enter and few leave; where the captors behave with studied brutality, terrorizing the mostly black population.

Looking into a series of charges a few years ago, the Supreme Court found that Angola's wardens so regularly violated the constitutional rights of the inmates that it ordered federal oversight of the prison, including the replacement of the former warden with one more attuned to modern theories of penology. The newcomer fascinated Bergner, who spent a year in and around the prison gathering material for this book. A no-nonsense lawgiver and supposedly progressive reformer, the replacement warden believed in the possibilities of redemption and rehabilitation...and, it appears, in earning a fortune from the unpaid work of his prisoners.

He turned out to be little better than his predecessors, but the replacement warden had a flair for promotion. One of his innovations was to establish a prison rodeo that even today draws onlookers from miles around to see the residents of Angola compete against sharp-horned bulls for a small cash purse. This rodeo provides Bergner with a useful framing device for his narrative, but also with an object lesson in empty symbolism, for the dangerous rodeo gives little reward but costs its participants dearly.

We owe the prisoners little, Bergner writes, for they have brought their fate on themselves; yet, he argues, we owe them more than "a perverse rodeo as a vehicle for self-improvement and a way to make themselves known." And, he continues in a strong argument, we owe them better than systematic terror and corruption of the sort that thrives in Angola, and elsewhere.

It's no classic of social criticism or muckraking journalism, but God of the Rodeo is an eye-opening journey into a homegrown hell all the same. It's well worth reading.

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