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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Roping' & Reality of the Angola Prison Rodeo.

Preface: I did not obtain press credentials before attending this event, so this editorial is entirely from the POV of an actual spectator. I still carry photo credentials from 2 newspapers that are valid, but since I wasn't officially on assignment, plus with guests, I didn't want to "press" the issue. (no pun, haha)

Angola Prison Rodeo --- April 17, 2010

We arrived to the event after sitting in 40 miles of traffic near St. Francisville, LA with road construction still apparently unfinished after 4 years of work. It took over 90 minutes to traverse the last 30 miles, so plan accordingly. There is only 1 road in and 1 road out of this event --- kinda like the view of Angola prison life itself, since over 75% of inmates are in Angola for life and will never be taking a road out.

Upon passing through the entrance gates of the prison, the cold, harsh stares from the Department of Corrections staff was slightly intimidating. Even though each civilian pretends to be there to simply enjoy a rodeo, the added edge & danger attached with being on 18,000 acres of prison land with real hardened convicts is the true draw of this event.

As we are guided acre by acre down towards the rodeo arena, the sheer vast size of this establishment, begins to dawn in on the visitors. Fortified guard rifle towers still stand manned overlooking miles of 25' high double-deep fencing and endless strands of rolled razor wire laying perched to snare the next foolish inmate escape attempt.

The shiny, colorful trucks and cars of the visitor parking areas look completely out of place, yet paint the quiet grass fields and acres of open pasture land. As we get out, like cattle, we all head quickly towards the deep-south Roman rodeo coliseum. The arena itself is actually just a large metal frame with bleachers & metal roofing overhang to shade all of the spectators. The arena seats 10,000 people and today like every other time in its history, the show is completely sold out.

After locating our seats which are quite near the main chute entrance to the dirt-filled oval stage, we settle in for the usual "down-home" commentary and red-neck rhetoric. We are not disappointed in the abysmal grandstanding by the rodeo
announcer. After 30 minutes of prayers, holding holds, few WhoDat chants & the warden announcing the presence of everyone including the kid who cuts his lawn at home, the show finally begins.

The small, but trusted group of prisoners who are allowed to compete are positioned in an area right across from the spectators (civilians) and above the holding chutes for the raging bulls and mustangs who are definitely poised for today's events. Wearing traditional black and white striped long-sleeve cowboy-style shirts, it remains unmistakably predictable, but casually unavoidable to mistake an inmate from a paid professional during the event.

The events go by one-by-one. Bareback horse riding, bull-riding, wild-cow milking, inmate buddy pickup on horseback, & calf wrestling are all on the menu of festivities today. While absolutely exciting in its own right, it is not unique from previous visits to this popular event. In some strange way, all of the events unfold almost with a predictable, traveling circus or "Cir de Angola" type of feel to it. The inmates, the wild animals and the spectators all seem to coordinate themselves to the same dance steps.

The animals unleash their fury with reckless abandon on the helpless inmates and the spectators point and gaggle about the events. The bulls charge and send prisoners flying like penguin-colored rag-dolls. While completely routine, however, it is strange to get the feeling that some people are actually expecting to see a different ending to to these events. However, that could be traced more to the cognitive ability of the attendees and less to do with the mystique of the show.

The spectators themselves run the gamut of social class, but most being classic country black, redneck white & small cross-sections in between.
The slutty cowgirl theme seems prevalent with most of the young girls, as if the girls dress themselves up to tease the inmates & provide them something to remember on those cold, dark lonely nights here at Angola. The majority of the rest of the visitors are essentially very homely, over-fed children and their parents looking for their long-lost fried funnel cake & cream soda, and taking the show in only between trips to the concession booths.

In the midst of all of the structure & predictability, the rawness of the show still shines through. The proximity to freedom and civilian living for the prisoners is clearly apparent, but like true professionals, they never interact, even verbally with the spectators, even while standing just feet away. For a brief moment, I was in a trance wondering why these men who appear to be relatively upstanding, tough, hard-working individuals got to Angola in the first place. Was it just a bad night of drinking followed by a regrettable action to a spouse or bar patron, or something more ruthless? Assuming they keep the Hannibal Lecter type far away from this event, I casually return to the enjoyment of the show.

All things considered, it is truly an amazing circus and should be on everyone's to-do list at least once. Sure, it is overdone, overplayed & part of an elaborate money-making grandstand, but you could say that about most professional sporting events. And at least here, the athletes only get paid for their winning performances and it is actually commensurate with their overall contributions to society as a whole.

So, get your tickets early and enjoy the greatest rodeo on this side of freedom.


CMB said...

I've never been but wondered what it was like...

healingsoul said...

truly amazing - I am familiar with the incredible work done at this prison. God has a mighty ministry in Angola Prison. He even as a seminary on the prison campus with a few churches fully run and attended by prisoners.

We were told by the warden that two groups meet every bus that arrives in Angola: one are the ruthless, gang-like thugs who run their own hell whole and the other are mighty men of God that serve Him under life sentences in the walls of Angola until the day He calls them home.

Every newcomer has a choice when they step off the bus. The men of God offer each person a sanctuary of protection from the terrors of prison life if he willingly chooses to become part of their community, no conditions, no commitments - just a willingness to participate in their activities.

God is certainly doing something supernatural in Angola, and the Rodeo is an outsiders chance to view something truly amazing happening under the Big Tent, but they have to be able to view it with God's eyes...the eyes of the heart...are they only see the surface veneer of what the natural eye perceives...

I didn't know you went or wrote this article but God knew because I told someone this morning at church about the work at Angola Prison today. I don't believe in coincidences. I believe in God!