Louisiana: The prison cowboys

By Nigel Tisdale

Twice a year, inmates of a maximum-security prison stage a public rodeo. Nigel Tisdall went along.

Horses are a big part of the prisoners' lives at Angola. Photo / AP
Horses are a big part of the prisoners' lives at Angola. Photo / AP

It's not on every holiday that you get to shake hands with a murderer.

"I made a mistake and it cost me," 37-year-old "BK" admits as I examine silver jewellery he has made for sale.

Surrounding us are rows of stalls piled high with "hobby craft" - good-quality bags, toys, clothing and furniture made by the inmates at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the United States.

About 160km northwest of New Orleans, the Louisiana State Penitentiary is called Angola because it stands on the site of a plantation once worked by slaves from West Africa. Now it is home to 5000 male offenders, three-quarters of whom are on a life sentence.

Their crimes have been violent, but the mood inside seems surprisingly benign, with neat white fences and green lawns basking in the Southern sunshine. Take away the razor wire, the watchtowers and the cops on quad-bikes, and you could be visiting a manicured country club.

Twice a year, Angola opens its security gates and invites the public to come on down and enjoy some "extreme rodeo".

Most of the prisoners who take part have never been on a horse, yet will try to ride irate bulls and bucking broncos, catch wild mustangs and play poker while being charged by ferocious horned cattle.

"It's an awesome sight," a fellow spectator tells me, "providing you like seeing people hurt."

The craft stalls are a sideshow to what began in 1965 as internal recreation. Now the Angola Prison Rodeo is an important rehabilitation tool that draws thousands of shoppers and spectators.

The standard of the handiwork on sale is impressive, and the prices reasonable. Beautifully turned bowls made from pecan and persimmon wood sit beside shiny leather saddles and ornate rocking horses. You can buy souvenir T-shirts that quip "Angola - A Gated Community", and fill up at inmate-run food stalls at which you can buy delicacies such as catfish and chips.

On stage, a six-piece prison band belts out gospel and R&B numbers with verve. It seems monstrous that the twists of life have left so many talented people lost behind bars until they die.

There is a party atmosphere in the wooden seats of the rodeo arena, which can hold 10,500 spectators and were built by inmates. Participating prisoners wear black-and-white striped shirts and jeans as they face snorting bulls and wild horses.

Ambulances with open doors are lined up by the ringside - and they're needed. These lifers have little to lose, and they make determined efforts to stay in the saddle and avoid the stampeding hooves.

It sounds like something more suited to Rome's Colosseum, but the show is organised by professionals. As the programme explains, it's all about "enabling positive behaviour changes".

Today there are only three nasty-looking injuries, and then we all get to drive away and continue our lives.

BK, meanwhile, will return to the dormitory and his job as a filing clerk that pays $2.65 an hour. Around 2050, perhaps, he will enter the inmate-run hospice, and then take up his place in Angola's Point Lookout Cemetery.

For us, getting away was easier.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles, its partner airline United connects from there to New Orleans.

Accommodation: St Francisville Inn is a fine Victorian house with 10 guest rooms.

Details: The next Angola Prison Rodeo is from April 26-27. Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum is open from Monday to Saturday and on rodeo days.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com and louisianatravel.com for more on visiting Louisiana.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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