The Exiled and The Devil’s Sideshow Crime, punishment, and spectacle at the Angola Prison Rodeo.

Illustration by Tim Foley

Driving north out of Baton Rouge on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, the sky bluer than the Gulf of Mexico, it is hard not to feel guilty for some reason, as if you have done something wrong but not been caught, or someone is waiting for you to transgress. Or maybe it is that you have the freedom to do anything you like, such as check into a nice hotel, or jump on a plane to just about anywhere, or head up to the state penitentiary to watch bulls bowl through men as if they did not exist.

Scenic Highway passes through a neighborhood with a meat market, a string of churches, and recycling centers. Many of the buildings are painted with colorful murals. “The time is always right what’s right,” says one. “Seek knowledge B4 vengeance.”

The scene changes to chemical plants, tank farms, boxcars tagged with graffiti, then again to prairies blanketed in black-eyed Susans.

Horse country begins: multi-acre, emerald fields surrounded by white fences, coastal oaks draped in Spanish moss. A Civil War battleground and National Cemetery lie among the sea pines, and there are signs for plantations. Mississippi is 10 miles away. A card table in a tangle of trees and kudzu sells Jumbo Bolled Peanuts [sic], but cars are going too fast to stop.

They slow rapidly on the edge of St. Francisville, a small, gentrified town in West Feliciana Parish, which also has the prison. Better not to risk it, drivers seem to be thinking. St. Francisville looks like it loves its sheriff’s department. Outside of town a car is pulled over, the driver still behind the wheel but his hands pressed strangely against the windshield, forefingers and thumbs making a diamond, as a white officer stands next to his SUV.

The Sunday drive is over when the road suddenly dead-ends at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola.

Angola is the biggest maximum-security state prison in America by population, about 6,300 men, three-fourths serving life sentences. It is in what The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections calls an “extreme remote location”—18,000 acres nearly encircled by the Mississippi River—and there is no way out except this road and a ferry used only by the prison.

 

The prison still advertises it as “The Wildest Show in the South,” but it used to be more open about how inmates, who sign releases and compete for a few bucks, would be “thrown every which way” for the crowd’s entertainment. The men are untrained, and there have been many injuries and even deaths over the years.

In the 19th century Angola was a slave plantation and forced-labor convict farm. As a state prison in the twentieth, it developed a reputation as “probably as close to slavery as any person could come” in a free country; “the worst prison in America”; “medieval, squalid, and horrifying”; and “bloodiest prison in the nation.” In this century some things have improved, but Angola is still in the news for inhumane treatment, and an inmate was killed in a fight the day before the rodeo.

All this is why people call Angola “the Alcatraz of the South.” Its reputation is nearly religious in intensity: Stygian, hellish, made for Sunday-school lessons. And its infamy is used as a threat that is all the more powerful because it lies out here, mostly unseen, at the edge of the imagination.

During Hurricane Gustav, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned, “Anybody who is caught looting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola. Directly to Angola. You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You go directly to the big house, in general population. All right? So, I want to make sure that every looter, potential looter, understands that. You will go directly to Angola Prison. And God bless you when you go there.” As every sweet granny in Louisiana knows, “bless your little heart” means fuck you.

The prison does not look all that threatening at first glance. A wooden guardhouse called “the carport” and a prison museum sit at the entrance. The Reception Center and Death Row are a hodgepodge of buildings off to the side, surrounded with concertina wire. The long allée of cypresses past the guardhouse becomes a road through green pastures where sleek, black cattle lie in repose. Someone has directed attempts to prettify the road with arrangements of gourds and geraniums and crude borders around shrubs still flowering in October.

The rodeo arena, an oval with covered bleachers, is a mile distant. It is built with steel, but the buildings and shacks around it are irregular sizes, knocked together from plywood and cinder blocks and painted different colors. An art fair and food stands sprawl under adjacent shed roofs. The impression is of firetrap, state fair, and scout camp. All of it lies within chain-link fencing and more rolls of razor wire shining like chrome, but there are a surprising number of entrances and exits and no clear security flow.

Visitors must park in an adjacent field and leave cell phones locked in their cars. Armed men patrol on ATVs. An expensive trailer marked as the sheriff’s command center sits near the entrance, and a high-tech observation post a quarter-mile in the distance raises its head on a hydraulic neck to see better. Deputies, guards, and unarmed prison workers are everywhere, but there is no metal detector at the main entrance. Visitors pass through and show the contents of their pockets to two young women, who seem overwhelmed, but are not made to prove their pockets are empty. The gate attendants take my chapstick but not my collapsible metal pen, which looks like a weapon.

The Angola prison rodeo has been open to the public for 51 years and takes place one weekend in April and every Sunday in October. It is the last prison rodeo in the country. The prison still advertises it as “The Wildest Show in the South,” but it used to be more open about how inmates, who sign releases and compete for a few bucks, would be “thrown every which way” for the crowd’s entertainment. The men are untrained, and there have been many injuries and even deaths over the years.

These days the official line is about the rehabilitating effect of participation and how it provides a sense of agency. (“It really gives them a feeling of being a man and standing on their own two feet, even though they’re incarcerated … we bring a human aspect to the way we treat them,” a corrections supervisor told Huffington Post.) Prisoners, they say, have the chance to earn 50, 100, or more dollars, if they win, which beats the four- to twenty-cents per hour they make at prison jobs. Net profits are meant to be used for rodeo safety, chapel construction, the Inmate Welfare Fund, and a re-entry program.

But a state audit last year showed that

 

“around $6.2 million in revenue from the rodeo just in 2014 and 2015 was being kept in a private checking account in Highlands Bank in St. Francisville, not with the Louisiana Department of Treasury where the state could account for it. Since the rodeo started in 1964, it doesn’t appear the state treasury has ever held its revenue, according to the audit. This means the rodeo money hasn’t been monitored by Louisiana state government since it began over 50 years ago.”

 

The audit found that money was missing or could not be traced. In all, the public event is a tight-lipped affair, and the press is given limited access.

The stands are full this Sunday, which means a crowd of 7,500 at 20 bucks a pop. Sun and shade stripe the competition floor, which is deep in dirt. Ambulances park at both entrance-exits, and backboards are propped on walls and fences. Just inside the stands a small audience of inmates sit in a cage. A dozen guards stand with their backs to the action, facing them. Signs on the rail say standing is not permitted. As I pass to find my seat, one of the guards roars, Siddown!!, at an inmate, and it is hard not to react.

Bodies fly the way people do when hit by cars—10 feet in the air, 20 feet distant—and land awkwardly as mannequins. The men get up and run, looking over their shoulders.

The bronco riding has started. Inmates do not last long and fall badly. One goes down face-first, bent at the waist, arms relaxed behind him, the way a child naps with its butt in the air. There are groans from the audience when he hits the dirt, but more laughter. The man jumps up and runs to the fence. One of the professional cowboys from the rodeo company rides to the bronc and yanks off the red flank strap that makes it buck, and the horse calms. More pro cowboys herd or lasso animals back to the pens. The real cowboys wear pink oxford shirts, cowboy boots, and hats. Competitors wait in their bullpen in striped prison shirts, jeans, tennis shoes or boots, ballistic vests, and sometimes helmets with wire faceguards.

For the next event, cowboys walk several prisoners into the ring and stand each in a hula hoop on the dirt. “Be very, very still,” the announcer says, but when the bull is set loose, professional rodeo clowns run among them, waving their arms. The bull head-butts the prisoners, runs over the top of them, tramples them under his hooves. Bodies fly the way people do when hit by cars—10 feet in the air, 20 feet distant—and land awkwardly as mannequins. The men get up and run, looking over their shoulders. One falls flat before the bull reaches him and though disqualified refuses to move. The announcer mocks him and the crowd jeers.

After that, a semi-tractor with “Wild Thing” painted on it pulls out into the dirt. Music blares and the announcer shouts incoherently on the PA. The crowd waits to see what will happen next—or maybe I am the only one in the arena not to know—and what happens is that Bighorn rams run into the ring, chased by monkeys riding dogs. I know I am at a rodeo, in a penitentiary, in the deep South, where men have their spines bent back double and their organs tenderized for our entertainment by animals the size of Hyundais, but now, for some reason, is when my weird-shit-o-meter pegs; the plane of reason is departed; things get mystical.

The bobbling, worried Capuchins wear cowboy shirts, chaps that indicate an endorsement deal, and little hats. They “ride” border collies—sit atop them, more accurately, holding on for dear life—that do not give a flip about them and focus on herding the mountain sheep into a pen and then, for some reason, onto the roof of the semi. For comic relief, a yapping Aussie pup named Cujo helps out at the end. Confused applause.

Tim “Wild Thang” Lepard, their owner, is dressed as gaudily as any American showman. His blue shirt has a giant white star on its back, like a magnification of the US flag. He takes a knee, another symbolic move, hugs a dog-monkey and speaks into his mic. He introduces the dogs. One was in Sports Illustrated, another raised money for breast-cancer awareness. He formally introduces the monkeys. One is named Little Elvis.

Lepard wants us to slow down and consider this: As a boy in Tupelo, Mississippi, he dreamed this very dream, and it came true. “This,” he says, indicating the dog-monkeys and semi-sheep, “is what dreams are all about.” He wants badly for us to chase our own dreams.

In 2000, Lepard’s bad muffler killed every one of his animals—monkeys, dogs, and sheep. “I started again,” he said, “and in four weeks time trained brand new animals. Went to Oklahoma City and won Act of the Year.” A reporter, “distressed” that one of Lepard’s Capuchins had been professionally bobbling for 26 years was told, “We love our animals. And the real people can tell you that.”

Now Wild Thing stands, hobbles painfully across the ring—he used to be a bull-rider himself—and speaks directly to the real people in the arena.

“I am not a Republican,” he says. “I’m not a Democrat. But I can tell you that it is time to put God back in the USA!”

Thunderous applause. I have the fleeting but distinct feeling I have slipped backwards, maybe to Shakespeare’s time. Exeunt monkeys.

In the next event two inmates hold a horse with a rope while a third tries to mount it. (No one manages it.) Then “Lady barrel racers,” the announcer says, will race in “the only event with someone not in prison.” There is bull riding; not a single inmate stays on to the buzzer.

There are two rounds of “Convict Poker,” a variation of the hula-hoop game and much loved by the crowd and YouTube. Four prisoners sit at a table in the ring, pretending to play cards, while a bull is set loose and taunted until it bowls through them, the chairs, and the table. Last man sitting wins. Bodies fly, the crowd roars. The plywood table with 2×4 legs is smashed to pieces both times and replaced.

There is Bull-Dogging, in which teams of inmates try to catch and pin young cattle as they come racing out of chutes. “Get the nose, get the nose, you gotta get the nose!” the announcer cries. Five of 16 teams manage it, usually when their steers are flipped all the way over and land on their backs. Most of the men get trampled and a few are dragged until they give up.

There is a corny and risqué magic show by Rudy The Clown, with the mounted MC as his straight man. (“That was a cheap trick, Rudy,” the cowboy MC says disapprovingly after one dumb bit. Rudy points to a woman in the audience and says he thought she was the cheapest trick there. “RUDY!” the MC shouts.) At the merciful end, Rudy releases two white doves from their confinement in a serving dish. They fly in confused lines no farther than the tin roof of the arena and sit there.

Is this another joke, meant to parody what ignorance yields in the hardness of life? In any case, no one wins anything.

In the “Chariot Races,” professional horsemen drag prisoners around the ring on scraps of sheet metal. The prisoners lie flat on their backs and hold clear-plastic pitchers of colored water. Whoever makes it back with the most water wins. Riders gallop like hell for a distant barrel, make the turn, and gallop back to the pens. One rider always speeds up just as the sled comes around the turn—a sadistic joke that makes a cash prize impossible—and slings his prisoners sideways, rolling violently, still clutching their empty pitchers. Two of ten finish.

There is “Wild Cow Milking,” but spectator fatigue is setting in. Do the cattle even have teats? Pizzles? It is hard to see in the dust and sinking sun. Is this another joke, meant to parody what ignorance yields in the hardness of life? In any case, no one wins anything.

Finally, all competitor inmates walk into the ring for “Guts and Glory”: “A chit (poker chip) is tied to the meanest, toughest Brahma bull available,” the rodeo website says. “The object here is to get close enough to the bull in order to snatch the chit. This is the last event of the day, and perhaps the most exciting.” Their boldfaced emphasis is on danger. The mounted announcer says the inmate who grabs the chit will win $1,500 this day, due to a bump by a local business sponsor, and the crowd gasps.

The bull is a brindle with horns painted satanic-red. He is a massive, bulging animal, biggest of the day and in an evil mood. The inmates look at each other, and many watch from the far fence. Others rush the bull and get knocked aside or trampled for their ambition. When the bull has them down he does the dance that grinds them in with his hooves and hooks them again and again. His horns have been tipped slightly, so there may not be penetration. With less than 30 seconds left, a man grabs the chit and trots away, limping.

 

•  •  •

 

Outside the arena, families wait their turn for a Ferris wheel barely taller than a man. They line up for funnel cakes and nachos. I want to see the art fair, which provides a roundedness to the day. A warden must have thought hard: What is the opposite of a violent stomping? Art, I guess. Maybe he was thinking of those girls from good families in a Faulkner story with their “boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut from the ladies’ magazines.”

Hundreds of stands display all manner of inmate work. Paintings range in quality from First Night Class, to Holiday Inn-style work, to wooden signs painted with photo-realistic branding, such as the LSU Tigers and Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning. A few pieces have the spark of outsider art. Other stands sell decorative turned bowls, sailing ships, leather goods, fabricated barbecue grills, rustic tables and chairs, and a much-duplicated double-rocker with a table between the seats, which is impractical but poignant, given the setting.

Trustees (10 years in prison and good conduct) in non-striped uniforms mix with visitors at their stands. “Medium-custody” prisoners sit behind chain-link fences with their wares on the public side. Maximum-security prisoners cannot take part in the art fair or the rodeo.

Inmates keep sales tickets on hand with their names, Department of Corrections numbers, and space to fill in descriptions of items. When you buy, the prisoner gives you the ticket to take to a shack where non-prisoners run your card or take your cash and stamp the ticket with a red star. You return it to the seller; he takes one of the carbonless copies, and you get your item. Trustees wheel large items to the front gate.

One trustee is selling colorful sculptures made of tack-welded nuts, bolts, pistons, wrenches, and other found metal. A praying mantis figure is beautifully executed but weighs 40 pounds. A smaller Uncle Sam with a skull head sits on the edge of a table, saluting. His body is a lawnmower carburetor and limbs are made from rebar. The artist has real talent. He says they call him Pork Chop. He has calm eyes and is easy to talk to. He says he works a prison job, goes to school for HVAC, and makes sculptures with his buddy when he has time. He asks 50 bucks for Uncle Sam, and I buy it and say I would like to put him in touch with an art-dealer friend, if he is open to commissions. He writes out his real name and prison address on a spare ticket. We shake hands.

The first guy tells me to “mash down that thing where the driver sits,” and I find that both accelerator and electric propeller work. He is a big, angry-looking dude who looks like a white nationalist. He may have called me Pal.

Across the pavilion a rough guy and his rough buddy are behind a chain-link fence in their striped uniforms. They are selling airboat models, which are on my side of the fence. The boats are to scale but are not models really; they are two- and three-feet long sculptures made of cypress, cedar, and walnut inlay. The rudders move on ingenious linkages. The first guy tells me to “mash down that thing where the driver sits,” and I find that both accelerator and electric propeller work. He is a big, angry-looking dude who looks like a white nationalist. He may have called me Pal. He says the smaller, prettier boat, which he made, had started at $300 but is reduced to two. I shake my head at the beauty of it. It reminds me, in its delicate ornateness and whiff of cedar, of Vietnamese woodwork. He mistakes my head-shake for a no.

“I’m in a selling mood,” he barks. “You in a buying mood? One-fifty.”

His buddy spins on him and whispers, “You sure?”

“Yeah, fuck it,” my man says, and I buy it for my dealer friend.

Why do I feel surprise, later, when I learn by Internet this man is in prison for life, with no hope for parole, because he made drugs more than once, while Pork Chop broke into his former girlfriend’s place, strangled her to death in her bed, tried to have sex with her corpse, then dumped her naked body in the ivy off a road? I cannot seem to retain the chief lesson of leaving the plane of reason: things do not have to make sense.

With difficulty I carry the airboat and Uncle Sam to the front gate, where a big guy in a guard uniform—all the guys are big guys—checks my sales tickets to see if I stole anything.

 

•  •  •

 

The prison art fair is good but alone would not draw thousands up from the cities, down from Mississippi, over from Alabama and Georgia and Texas. No, it is the rodeo that sells: powerful animals stripped of will and forced to participate; men without defenses hurt by them; the surreal spectacle of dog-monkeys chasing Bighorns onto a semi.

Having won dominion over most of what walks, creeps, flies, and swims, we cannot simply leave other animals alone, even when there is no good reason to mess with them. What is the line that runs back through rodeo, bullfight, circus, organ grinder, cockfight, bear-baiting, horse-and-dog blood sports, and the forum? Nothing makes Twain’s town loafers as happy as a dogfight, “unless it might be putting turpentine on a stray dog and setting fire to him, or tying a tin pan to his tail and see him run himself to death.”

These prisoners, who did not leave others alone, mess with animals not left alone, for a prize many of us would not call in to a radio station for. It is a spectacle of servitude, cruelty enacted, a passion play about the hard and irrational. It is predicated on pain.

The Angola Rodeo survives when other prison rodeos have closed because, of all places in America, Angola is the perfect stage. Can you imagine it taking place in the state capital? Or on the National Mall? No, this sort of bald-faced admission of who we are is best left to the sticks, the former slave plantation, the prison, the place with the worst possible reputation. And for half a century the state government has sanctioned, organized, and made money from the spectacle.

These prisoners, who did not leave others alone, mess with animals not left alone, for a prize many of us would not call in to a radio station for. It is a spectacle of servitude, cruelty enacted, a passion play about the hard and irrational. It is predicated on pain.

The Angola Rodeo seems like the sort of thing you would find in a distant province of some empire now gone. After weeks of hard travel by steamer and coach and by foot in the mud, across versts of inhospitable country, you arrive at a penal colony with cruel justice and an odd ritual performed for visitors. Its pageantry invokes God and praises the king, though neither church nor palace discuss it in polite conversation.

But this is the United States of America, anno Domini 2018, when the source of a particular neutrino has just been discovered to be an elliptical galaxy many light-years distant, with a supermassive black hole at its center.

It is disorienting. I leave Angola under the gaze of guards and deputies and drive north. In minutes I am in Mississippi. The narrow road twists through the forest, as in some dream. The sun gets weird. Trees have fallen in the road, and road signs are riddled with bullets. Later, on the main highway a lighted billboard advertises an odd URL, IsHeInYou.com, and Jesus, in the spotlight, looks away, looks away, looks away, somewhere else.