So this all sounds like a fun experience for the whole family, something that I went to so I could better understand southern and small-town culture. Well, I did; but my group also went because this entire event was put on by the Angola State Prison and within prison grounds. The “small town” of Angola is solely a prison town, a sprawling land mass of barbed wire and guard dogs. Angola used to be a plantation but was changed into a state penitentiary; however, the impressive 8,000 acres of the plantation still lives on through numerous prison camps, a rodeo stadium and grounds, gardening land, and more. Inmates of Angola are all men and are there for life imprisonment or death-row, no other punishments. They are the workers who farm the land—for $0.02 an hour—and lead programs like dog and horse breeding. These inmates literally train the animals that keep them incarcerated. The hospice center on the grounds is led by a few nurses and by inmates and is top ranked in the nation; most inmates never see the outside of Angola once they are committed.
However, 7 days a year, Angola opens its doors to the rest of the world and puts their inmates on display. Some help prepare food for vendors, but primarily inmates either are a part of the rodeo or the arts and crafts. The difference between these two experiences is staggering and off-putting.
The rodeo was basically the worst thing ever. I can't put it very eloquently because words shouldn't cover up the horror, disgust, and fear I felt while I was watching. First, the seats were packed; men, women, children were all there of every age group. Second, all the inmates in the events volunteered to be there, they chose to be in the ring. To me that makes it a little worse because clearly they could see that the rodeo would make them money. All the events were winner gets a prize. Who could stay on a bucking bull the longest; which group of men could milk an irate cow. All the winners got prize money. But the big event at the end, what the announcer called the “crowd favorite” was the most dangerous AND the most expensive prize. A bull would be let loose in the arena with a poker chip strapped to his forehead and whichever inmate got the chip off would get $500. About 20 men were in that arena, many shirts were torn, a number of men were trampled, one inmate threw up, but there was a winner. And they were cheered on. I'm pretty sure the YAV group was the only group who was not cheering at all.
The popularity of the show, the cheers that echoed for miles, the smiles, the cotton candy, the high-fives. These are many of the things that are telling me that the Angola Rodeo will not go away anytime soon. These inmates look forward to it every year; they might get trampled or injured, they might physically get sick, but it is there time of glory and the audience is eating it up. These inmates are also fighting for money and fame in Angola. Remember how much I said inmates get paid an hour for field work? If you don't want to scroll back up it $0.02 an hour. We did the math: it would take an inmate working in the field 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 12 years to make $500.
Right outside of the rodeo walls, there is a different world. The rest of the rodeo grounds has arts and crafts booths for inmates to sell their own products. Hundreds of men spend the day selling their wares to their audience. There birdhouses, rocking chairs, and chess sets all exquisitely hand made; men make wooden roses, paintings, stained glass, cutting boards, anything they can think of with the limited resources they have. These men spend all year working to sell their merchandise; and it is impressive.
But I still felt out-of-place. There were men in square cages who were selling items but did not have enough privileges to walk around and sell. Talking to someone and having a blatant fence between us was a blinking light that says “Don't forget who we are!” But the hardest thing for me was when I was walking around with one of my friends. I was in a medical boot (I broke my foot, fun times). I saw an inmate with a boot on the same foot and I went up to him and said “Boot Buddies!” He immediately laughed and we launched into a great conversation that lasted 5-10 minutes. As I look back on it, he spoke as if we were standing on the street and he was going to see me in a week; he said things like “when I see you next...” and “don't come back around here...” But when one of his customers interrupted our conversation with a question, he realized where he was again and put a veil up between us.
When I left his booth I saw many inmates with their families sitting at their booths. Men with their kids on their laps, their mother holding their hands. This is a chance for these men to see their families, touch their families, hold their families. It's an amazing moment. There's so much bad happening in the Rodeo itself, but here's this pure moment of a man getting to hug his father and mother for the first time in a year. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the families have to remember the gap between the outside world and Angola. I felt it and I hit it hard and I didn't even know someone in Angola.
There were so many emotions brewing in my mind when I walked around Angola that day. I felt so much fear for the inmates who were in the arena; I felt a deep, sorrowful connection to the men selling their treasures to strangers. I also saw the influence of Angola and Louisiana in these men. There were paintings of streetcars, horses, the bayou, the Saints; the vision of these men expands far beyond the walls and green of Angola.
I still can't explain the Angola Rodeo in the way I want; I'm unsatisfied with this explanation even now. It's an experience to have if simply to sit with yourself and think “What is wrong and what can I do?” I couldn't leave the grounds empty-handed; I wasn't looking for a souvenir of sorts but one snuck up on me. I found a painting by an inmate I couldn't pass up (see the picture). I felt horrible haggling about the price, but I couldn't leave the painting behind. I think it was the inmate's first sale ever at the Rodeo; I asked and part of the money I spent went back to him which I appreciated. I just...I just have no more ways to describe this time.
This song makes me long for another space; I always think about being so far away from my family but now I guess I really have nothing to complain about. It also reminds me that there is no way to really “bleed” someone out of you; they're with you, in your thoughts and memories forever. And that's why, even after years, those men will still have their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers sitting next to them in those rocking chairs.
Note: I found this article while searching around. The man in the photo at the top, Joseph Norfleet, is the man I had the conversation with, my “Boot Buddy.”
Also, if you would like to learn more about Angola, there are two documentaries I recommend. The Farm is on Netflix and The Wildest Show in the South is about the Rodeo, but I currently cannot find that documentary on Netflix.