ANGOLA — Cars streamed toward the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola by the hundreds Sunday, choking the two-lane highways for miles as thousands poured toward the prison to take in “The Wildest Show in the South.”
The Angola Prison Rodeo, held each Sunday in October and during a single weekend in April, pits inmates against bulls and bucking broncos before a crowd of about 10,000 in a specially built arena on the prison’s sprawling 18,000-acre campus. Around the arena, other inmates man booths selling their own handmade crafts, from simple stamped-leather key chains to elaborately carved rocking benches.
Now the only prison rodeo in the country, the Angola Prison Rodeo brings in roughly $650,000 for the penitentiary, money that covers the cost of the rodeo and helps fund educational and re-entry programs for Angola inmates, according to Warden Burl Cain. All four Sundays in October sold out in advance, and Cain said the narrow roads leading to the prison are the largest obstacle to drawing even more people to the rodeo.
“We have people coming here from all over the world,” Cain said Sunday, speaking with reporters in front of a merry-go-round near the hobby-craft stalls.
The spectacle didn’t seem to disappoint most of those who turned out. Emmett Minor, a rodeo fan from Monroe, said he drove down with his wife and cousin after hearing about the rodeo for years.
“I enjoyed all of it,” Minor said.
David Malinowski, who traveled from Chicago with his wife after reading about the rodeo online and seeing advertisements on television, said they’d been blown away by what the inmates had to offer — both inside and outside the ring.
“The crafts that the guys make, the rodeo itself — it’s just amazing,” he said.
The rodeo lived up to its billing as “The Wildest Show in the South” — in addition to classic rodeo events like bull riding, inmates who are rodeo amateurs competed in wilder events like “pinball,” where prisoners stand inside hula hoops as a bull is set loose in the arena. The last inmate not to take off running or be thrown from his ring wins a cash prize.
Despite the dangers, the prisoners who volunteer say they do so readily. Inmates don’t get the chance to practice, but more experienced veterans of previous rodeos try to give rookies tips, and all are required to wear vests and helmets to try to protect them from the bulls.
Billy Joe Faye, this year’s oldest contestant, said he’s been participating on and off since he arrived at Angola in 1994 to begin serving a 50-year sentence for armed robbery. Despite injuries, Faye said, he keeps suiting up each year for the excitement — and because it provides a brief respite from life in prison.
“You’re in Angola, but when you step into that chute in the arena, you’re not thinking about prison,” Faye said. “You’ve got a bull coming at you and you ain’t got time to think about it. You’re free.”
A handful of concessions are made to the amateur rodeo cowboys, Cain said: Instead of having to hang on to a bucking bull for eight seconds like professional bull riders, the Angola inmates have to ride for just six seconds; while professional cowboys must grip the saddle with just one hand, the inmates can cling to the bull any way they choose.
“If you want to hold on with both hands and bite an ear in your mouth, we don’t care,” Cain said. “Just stay on any way you can.”
Aldric Lathem, of Minden, who’s serving a 65-year sentence for armed robbery, said the cash prizes offered to contestants were what first drew him to compete eight years ago.
“The first time I came out here, I was scared to death, but after I got hit by the bull, I knew what it felt like and figured there wasn’t no sense in being scared instead of coming back out,” Lathem said.
Faye, who was signed up to compete in inmate pinball and in two-man bulldogging, said he also was planning on winning the rodeo’s final and most famed event: Guts and Glory, where inmates chase an enraged bull around the arena in hopes of plucking a poker chip tied to the bull’s forehead.
“They said I’m too old, that I can’t do it, but I’m fixing to prove them wrong,” Faye said. “I ain’t never too old.”
Alas, Faye — and the dozens of other inmates who made a go at it Sunday — came away empty-handed. Although the bull sent several inmates flying, none managed to pry away the chip before the arena’s clock ran out.
Outside the arena, thousands of spectators milled about with inmates.
Despite the loose atmosphere, Cain said the prison hasn’t seen any incidents at the rodeo. Inmates must have exemplary disciplinary records before they’re allowed to participate, and nearly all those working the rodeos are trusties.
For Steven Quatrevingt, who’s been serving a sentence for murder in Angola since 1990, the opportunity to chat with the public for a few hours is something he’s been looking forward to since he first started participating in the rodeo in 1997.
“It’s fantastic — it makes you feel alive again,” said Quatrevingt, a graduate of the prison’s seminary who now tutors there.
“It’s almost like the Super Bowl,” said another inmate, 38-year-old George Gillam, who’s been serving a life sentence at Angola since he was 16.
“Where else can you do this?”