Rarely does the public find anything entertaining about a person who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison. That is not the case with prison rodeos, however, which draw people from all over the U.S. and even other countries.
Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas have all operated prison rodeos in modern times. The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola hosts the nation’s longest-running rodeo, which began in 1965 as a way to entertain prisoners and guards. The event was opened to the public in 1967 with a 4,500 seat arena, and a new stadium completed in 2000 increased the capacity to 7,500. The rodeo has been closely associated with longtime Warden Burl Cain, who retired in early 2016. [See: PLN, June 2012, pp.1, 10].
The Angola rodeo runs twice each year – once in the spring and every Sunday in October – under the salacious tag line, “Guts or Glory.” Between these combined events, the rodeo raises a substantial sum – $5 million in 2013, for example. In 2015, CBS Sunday Morning projected $4 million in revenue from the October rodeo alone.
While lucrative, controversy surrounds such events.
“A lot of people go to see the inmates get hurt,” said Stephen Bright with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “There is no justification for dangerous events that are not part of a regular rodeo except to exploit the inmates.”
“Rodeo is a dangerous sport,” added then-Angola Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot, who acknowledged prisoner injuries and even deaths, the last of which occurred in the 1980s. “But in terms of what we have to protect the inmates, we have all the helmets and chest protectors needed.”
Critics have compared prison rodeos to bloodsports such as those held for the benefit of spectators in Rome’s Colosseum. Angola officials admit that prisoners who participate in the rodeo receive no training, and some of the events certainly seem to appeal to the audience’s bloodthirsty nature. One example is “Convict Poker,” where four prisoners are seated at a poker table in an arena where a raging bull is released. The last prisoner remaining at the table wins a prize. In another event, prisoners compete for the rodeo’s top prize – $500 – by attempting to snatch a poker chip attached to a bull.
A similar event, involving attempts by prisoners to retrieve a bag of money from between the horns of an angry bull, served as one of the top tourist draws at the Texas Prison Rodeo, which was held in Huntsville from 1931 to 1986.
As stated by Mitchel P. Roth, author of Convict Cowboys: The Untold Story of the Texas Prison Rodeo, the event was deliberately “ratcheted up to make it more dangerous and crazy [...] to distinguish it from free world rodeos.”
Racked.com reported that most prizes available to prisoners at the Angola rodeo range from $15 to $100. Given that prison work assignments pay from $0.02 to $0.20 per hour, such awards create a strong incentive for prisoners to risk life and limb for the entertainment of tourists and prison staff.
While some prisoners have been hurt and killed in rodeo events, to others they offer a form of redemption – if only temporary.
Participating prisoners look forward to the rodeo. “It makes me feel like somebody,” said prisoner Milton Billiot, 44. “You come to Angola with a life sentence; you don’t feel like a person anymore. You’re a nobody. This gives me a chance to be somebody again, to entertain the people, and just have fun.”
And then there’s the Arts and Crafts festival at the rodeo, where prisoners can sell jewelry, leather crafts, paintings and other handmade items.
“I’ve seen inmates make thousands of dollars on a day,” Fontenot stated.
The proceeds from the Angola rodeo go into the prison’s Inmate Welfare Fund, which is supposed to benefit the prisoner population and has been used to build a chapel and purchase recreational equipment.
The rodeo is not all fun and games, though. As previously reported in PLN, Louisiana prison administrator James H. Leslie was indicted in 2006 on federal charges of tampering with a witness in connection with an extortion investigation involving Dan Klein, Jr., a contractor who provided livestock for the Angola rodeo. Leslie pleaded guilty and was sentenced in May 2010 to five months in prison plus two years on supervised release. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.26; Feb. 2007, p.17].
When the rodeo at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) was shut down in 2010, it ended a 70-year run. “It was a major, major loss” to the local economy, said Joe Pichard, who owns a family restaurant near the prison in McAlester.
“It has substantially affected our tourism revenue for our city, and that’s why I’m pushing so hard to get this back,” said Kathy Wall, McAlester’s manager of tourism. “[The rodeo] has been part of history here, and it has been missed tremendously. We still get calls from people all over the United States wanting to know when it is and if we will get it back.”
Wall noted that 89% of the OSP rodeo revenue came from out-of-towners. The event was closed due to staff shortages and the fact that the stadium requires at least $100,000 in repairs.
“The state’s looking at a $611 million [budget] shortfall, so the state can’t do much to help with OSP funding,” said Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals.
A bull riding organization, Professional Bull Riders, Inc., is interested in restarting the OSP rodeo, and local law enforcement has expressed an interest in providing security.
“There’s a long road ahead of us to get it back, but the sheriff’s office is on board,” said Rick Wall with the Pittsburgh County Sheriff’s Office.
As reported by Newsok.com, supporters of resurrecting the OSP rodeo face another major impediment: slow-turning bureaucratic cogs in gaining approval from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Sources: Associated Press, The Oklahoman, ABC News, The Economist, www.huffingtonpost.com, The Times-Picayune, www.racked.com, www.itemonline.com
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