1965: The Angola Prison Rodeo’s first ride
In 1965, a small group of inmates and employees at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola decided to hold a rodeo. It wasn’t the first prison rodeo; prisons in Oklahoma and Texas also held similar annual events, but it was a first for Louisiana. Initially intended as simple entertainment for all those involved, the first couple of rodeos consisted of pickup trucks backed together in a field with onlookers sitting on the hoods of cars. In 1967, it was opened to the public, with ticket sales benefitting the Inmate Welfare Fund.
While other prison rodeos have faded away over the years, the Angola Prison Rodeo continues to grow. In the late ’60s, the prison built stands that could accommodate over 4,000 spectators. Today, more than 10,000 people can attend each rodeo, which occurs every Sunday in October, as well as once in April. Despite criticism of the event, which some consider inmate exploitation, it remains popular, with tickets — costing $20 and available through the prison website — selling out almost every weekend.
- The Angola Prison Rodeo is the longest-running prison rodeo still in operation.
- The rodeo includes traditional events such as bull riding and bucking broncos, but it also includes its own original events. That includes “convict poker,” in which four men sit around a card table in the middle of an arena also containing an angry bull. The last man still seated is declared the winner.
- A similar event is called “prisoner pinball” and sees inmates standing in randomly placed hula hoops, with a bull released into the ring. The last one to step out of his hula hoop wins.
- The grand finale is an event called the “Guts and Glory” run and sees inmates scramble to grab a poker chip affixed to the forehead of the toughest bull.
- The inmates compete for real prizes including large sums of money and fancy belt buckles, and the events of the rodeo can be truly dangerous. However, the inmates in the rodeo are always accompanied by professional rodeo workers. Rodeo clowns are always in the arena during the events, and emergency services personnel are ready on the sidelines.
- In addition to the rodeo events, the event includes an arts-and-crafts market where Angola inmates sell wares they have made themselves. The items for sale range from paintings to leather crafts to jewelry. Some of the inmate artists are allowed to mingle with buyers and sell their work face-to-face.
- The prison itself is built on a former plantation, and covers 18,000 acres, which makes it larger than Manhattan. The prison still contains farmland where inmates grow corn, soybean, and cotton.
The maximum-security Angola has a long-standing — and well-earned — reputation as a tough place to do hard time. Prison officials, however, tout the rehabilitative nature of the annual rodeo. Good behavior earns inmates the experience of freedom, whether they are selling their handiwork, competing in the rodeo, or simply participating as a part of the crowd. For those on the outside, it serves as a singular if unsettling event that blends the excitement of a rodeo with a rare peek behind prison walls. In both cases, it’s just another example of how Louisiana is a place like no other.