Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Doing the jailhouse rodeo


Last updated 14:28 09/02/2011

At Angola Prison's rodeo in Louisiana, the hosts - and the competitors - are the prison inmates.

Rodeo USA
LET THE GAMES BEGIN: Convict rodeo makes a big day out for Angola Prison inmates.

When we first hear about a rodeo put on by and featuring prisoners, we think it is a joke.

It's not until we drive through the security gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison, that we realise something so weird is so real.

At the Angola Prison Rodeo prisoners put their bodies on the line for money and glory, where they are charged at and tossed in the air by wild bulls and thrown to the ground by bucking broncos - voluntarily.

Unlike the glitz and ceremony of a normal rodeo, with celebrity cowboys and bull-riding heroes, there is no professional training for the prisoners.

They are dressed in overly theatrical convict-striped outfits (despite them not even wearing convict stripes in the prison) and thrown into brutal situations with wild animals, seemingly all for the crowd's pleasure.

The rodeo, which is held in the months of April and October, prides itself on events "you won't see anywhere else", such as Convict Poker and Pinball, where participants are set up to feel the ire of a raging bull's fury.

Convict Poker has no athletic competitive aspect to it; a group of four inmates sit at a table and pretend to play poker as an angry bull is let out of the chute and provoked by rodeo clowns to charge at the table.

Watching a 700-kilogram bull paw at the ground while it eyes up its prey, then finally charge at them, is sickening.

The bull propels its first victim into the air, then skittles all four prisoners one by one, leaving nothing but a pile of broken plastic chairs.

Pinball is similar; prisoners stand in hula-hoops, and try to outlast one another while a bull meanders around butting at them and assessing which one to charge first.

Prisoners also risk it all in events such as steer tackling, horse roping and wild-cow milking.

The unsettling feeling we both have is apparent in the crowd; people wriggle and squirm in their seats as prisoners are struck.

But as project co-ordinator for the Louisiana State Penitentiary Gary Young points out, there have never been any fatal or serious injuries at the rodeo and there is always more interest from prisoners to compete than there are places in the competitions.

Being able to compete is actually a reward for good behaviour and positive progress.

Mr Young says many of the prisoners come from negative backgrounds and this event gives them the chance to do something positive and have 10,000 people applaud them.

"Prisoners love the rodeo and work hard year round to maintain a good conduct record so that they can participate."

In the more traditional competitions such as bull riding, the prisoners become heroes, cheered on by the crowd, and they obviously relish entertaining a crowd.

It is easy to see how the rodeo provides a sense of escapism for the inmates; Angola is the United States' largest maximum security prison, where 75 per cent of inmates are serving life sentences, and life does mean life.

"It's something to be able to say 'I did that'.Convicted murderer David Crowell, who is competing in the final event, Guts and Glory, where inmates chase a bull around the arena, trying to grab a chip from between its horns to win a cash prize, is energised by his day's experience.

"It's something that is so positive when everything else is so negative that brought you in here," he tells us.

He says the rodeo is a positive way to release aggression without getting violent with another inmate, and is also a way to make some money if you win.

But the rodeo is not the only attraction of the Angola event.

The equally prominent aspect of the day is the hobby craft stores and food booths outside the main stadium.

The hobby craft is set out almost like a high school gala.

Prison bands play, booths with food and art works are presented and prisoners mingle with the public as they sell items they have made.

They sell leather goods, furniture, toys, ornaments and art work, mostly of an extremely high quality for incredibly low prices.

Various religious groups, ethnic clubs, drama and literary clubs, and even the prison's "Unity and Understanding Club" are all represented.

The prisoners get most of the money from their sales, and many send it back home to their families or use it for things they need in prison.

Anthony Middlebrooks Jr, a young man serving 40 years for a robbery, is selling leather belts he made.

He says he does it to make some money for himself.

"I really needed some money to help me survive in here, as far as cosmetics and food.

"I needed to help myself so I got into hobby shop, trying to get money for a lawyer."

Spectator Catherine Root says the event is a double-edged sword in many ways.

While she loves looking at the crafts, she feels like leaving when she sees men thrown from wild horses or almost trampled.

"I felt particularly uneasy during the wild horse race. One of the horses took off on a run, dragging a man behind."

She, like many others we speak to, thinks the best reason behind the rodeo is for prisoners to be able to mingle with the public, and to share their stories and lives, as well as their talents in crafts.

"Who knows how much interaction these men have with the public?

"I felt completely safe at the rodeo, and it was a good chance to see a world that I might not otherwise experience."

- The Dominion Post