By Andrew Alexander, DIG Sports Editor
ANGOLA – The chute opens and out pops an inmate atop a bucking bronco, desperately hanging on for dear life. The seconds seem to tick by at a snail’s pace in the quintessential battle of man versus beast.
Three, two, one.
The buzzer sounds, but the convict cowboy is not finished, hanging on past the required time before finally being thrown off the bronco into the dirt.
He rises to the sounds of cheers filling the air of the 10,000 seat arena and pauses to soak it all in. As he jogs back across the dirt, a faint smiles appears across his face.
Every Sunday in October, and one weekend in April, people travel from far and wide to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to witness the spectacle that is the Angola Prison Rodeo.
On the surface, the concept of a prison rodeo seems relatively simple: inmates attempt to ride a bull or tame a bucking bronco, while free citizens cheer on their incarcerated brethren.
For Warden Burl Cain, the Angola Prison Rodeo is a means to redemption for many of the inmates under his watch. Cain’s ultimate vision when he became warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary was to reduce violent crime in Angola and the rodeo is one of the biggest methods for fundraising.
“[The rodeo] enables us to be able to afford the re-entry program to buy all of the welding machines and all the things we have so that we can do re-entry because we have no tax dollars really for that,” Cain said. “This rodeo enables us to carry out our real mission.”
The re-entry program at Angola provides inmates with an education, skills and trade, with the goal of making them employable upon their release.
The rodeo raises millions of dollars each year for Angola through ticket and concession sales and a vast selection of inmate-created hobby crafts.
“If you want to hold on both hands and bite an ear in your mouth, we don’t care. Just stay on any way you can.”
– Burl Cain, Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden
– Burl Cain, Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden
“It’s an entrepreneurship for the hobby crafters because they’re learning how to have a business, to manufacture something and to market it and to keep enough money to restock themselves,” Cain explained. “It’s part of the re-entry program.”
Inside the arena of the only prison rodeo in the country, inmates compete for the title of All-Around Cowboy in traditional rodeo events, such as bull and bareback riding.
“The regular rodeo you have to ride eight seconds, here you ride six,” Cain said. “A regular rodeo, you got to hold on with one hand, here you can hold on any way you can. If you want to hold on with both hands and bite an ear in your mouth, we don’t care. Just stay on any way you can.”
Additionally, the inmates participate in events known as “Pinball” and “Convict Poker,” which combine courage and stupidity in the name of a cash prize.
In Pinball eight inmates stand in hula-hoops lined up close together as a wild bull is released into the arena. The last man standing wins.
Convict Poker is essentially the same means, but a different result. Four inmates sit at a table positioned close to the opening of the chute playing “poker,” and a bull is released. The inmate with his back to the bull always takes the brunt of the beast’s hit, and the last inmate seated wins.
Now in its 51st year, the Angola Prison Rodeo started after a world champion cowboy was accused of robbing a store in Shreveport and sent to LSP.
“They put him in prison, and he talked them into having a rodeo. Turns out he was innocent and got out, but he got the rodeo started,” Cain said.
Cain once rode a bull at an LSU rodeo many years ago.
“I’ll never that do that again,” Cain laughed. “I’m not that crazy.”
Amid the light-hearted atmosphere of the rodeo, Cain hopes to inspire the next generation to avoid a life of crime by catching a glimpse at those who can’t leave the grounds of Angola with the rodeo is over.
“I’m really looking for the children that come here to see that they can leave at the end of the day and the inmates can’t leave, and see that in prison it’s not that we punish you so much, it’s that you can’t ever leave,” Cain said. “You can’t ever eat a Big Mac. You’ve got to stay here. We want it to be an incentive for children not to live a life a crime.”
One of the most important aspects of the rodeo for Cain is the opportunity it provides the families of those participating, either in the rodeo or the hobby craft fair, to visit and cheer on their loved ones.
“Maybe it’s the only time a mom will ever see her son do something good,” Cain explained. “She’s had to go with him through court and trials and maybe a murder and the horrible things he’s done. Maybe we can get him on the road to success. We can’t save the last victim, but we can prevent the next victim. That’s what it’s all about.”
For more information on the Angola Prison Rodeo, visit angolarodeo.com