An athletic event set to take place on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola was abruptly canceled Wednesday, a few days after the competition began drawing criticism for what some called a spectacle that sensationalized the prison, its inmates and the victims of the offenders housed there.
“Escape From Angola,” a triathlon set for March 20, advertised the expansive West Feliciana Parish prison’s hills and lake as a setting on which to run and swim on an unusual course “that spoke to the intensity of the terrain,” according to the event’s website, which appeared to have been disabled late Wednesday. Cycling was planned along parts of the Tunica Trace just outside the prison’s gates.
Some 300 to 350 athletes paying $150 each had signed up by Wednesday, said the event’s organizer, Jonathan Dziuba, who owns the company Freshjunkie Racing, in an interview before deciding to cancel the race.
The company also planned to charge an additional $200 a pop to spend the night before the race inside the old death row cells where convicted murderers, such as serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, once slept. That facility is now used as a museum and death row inmates are housed in a newer building.
Winners would have been granted retired “keys to the prison.” Though alligators and other creatures live on the grounds of the 18,000 acres of rolling green farmland — home to some 6,300 men convicted of mostly murder, rape and other violent crimes — Dziuba said athletes would have been safe from offenders and otherwise face the same risks posed by any Louisiana terrain.
Dziuba said in a statement late Wednesday he would fully refund anyone who had registered. He and his team had been the target of personal threats and attacks, he said.
“It saddens us to let hateful messages and threats dictate our actions, but we are not equipped to handle this onslaught,” he said in the release, stressing the event was conceived in cooperation with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
In recent days, the planned race had been picking up criticism on social media, as well as becoming on Wednesday the subject of an article on the website Jezebel.
Earlier Wednesday, Dziuba defended the event, saying some of the proceeds would go toward charities such as the Angola Prison Museum.
“I think people are typically going to look for reasons to be outraged. It doesn’t matter what I say. We have never outwardly exploited, mocked, or intimidated anybody,” he told The Advocate.
But Lisa Graybill, the New Orleans-based deputy legal director for mass incarceration at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the theme of the event — including a logo adorned with barbed wire — was tone-deaf.
“I find it offensive,” she said. “The concept of getting a community to interact with prisoners I think is a good one, but this goes about it in all the wrong ways. If you look at the marketing, starting with the name, ‘Escape from Angola,’ it sensationalizes a place that’s really a scene of tragedy and embarrassment to Louisiana, and it’s playing on every bit of that.”
This is actually the second time the planned event has been canceled. Longtime Angola former Warden Burl Cain was involved in planning last year’s event, Dziuba said. That triathlon was canceled because Corrections Secretary James Leblanc hadn’t signed off on it, said corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde.
In a news release sent after Wednesday’s cancellation, corrections officials supported the organizers’ decision to cancel, but characterized it as a loss for prisoners and the surrounding community. This is, in part, because the offenders would have been allowed to sell their crafts to visitors, as they do at the Angola Rodeo.
“Hobby craft sales enable offenders to purchase needed items for themselves, but also allows offenders a means to send money to their families, who are often the collateral victims to the crimes they commit,” the release stated.
The release also noted that the town of St. Francisville will lose any economic benefit local businesses might have gained from hosting racing participants.
Though event organizers were charging $150 a head to register and up to $250 on race day — on top of the $200 for those slumbering in the old death row — organizers agreed to pay the state only $10 per athlete and an additional $50 per cellblock sleeper, according to a contract provided by Laborde.