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Angola Prison Rodeo


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By Mark King



The Angola Prison Rodeo is the longest running prison rodeo in the country. It was started in 1965 during the bloodiest period in the prison’s history. At first it was primarily planned as a way to let inmates blow off some steam in a way that didn’t involve slitting their cell mate’s throat. At that time Angola, based on the number of inmate assaults, was the most dangerous place to be incarcerated in America. The rodeo not only helped relieve inmate tension, but also proved very popular with spectators from the outside. Within the first few years, the popularity of the rodeo drove the construction of the initial 4,500 seat arena. In 1997 seating was increased to 5,500 and now the rodeo is held in a new arena that seats 7,500.


The Rodeo runs every weekend in October and two weekends each April. As Ron Chandler, Derrell Billingsley, and I were considering some destinations in Louisiana for a weekend motorcycle trip, this event lassoed our imagination and never let go. So on Saturday, October 23, 2004, we went to prison.


The Louisiana State Penitentiary’s history of inmate violence and harsh treatment began before the Civil War. In 1880 the penitentiary expanded when an 8,000 acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish called Angola (named after the area in Africa where the former slaves came from) was purchased. Inmates were housed at what used to be the old slave quarters and the penitentiary became known as Angola.


Angola has now expanded to 18,000 acres of prime farm land. The inmates provide all the labor to raise crops on this land. ‘The Farm,’ as it is often referred, is bounded by the Mississippi River on three sides and more fence and razor wire than I have ever seen on the fourth. Escape from Angola is as formidable a challenge as the more infamous Alcatraz. It is said that if the gators don’t get you, the snakes will.


There are more than 5,000 inmates at Angola. 51% of them are there for homicide. Another 19% for robbery and another 17% for rape – these are not nice people. Of all the men sent there, 85% will never leave, not alive anyway. There are more than a dozen on death row. For most inmates at Angola, freedom is not only out of the question - it is only a faint and fleeting memory.

To get to Angola, we decided to ride the whole length of the Natchez Trace from Nashville to Natchez. We had all ridden short stretches of the Trace, but none of us had done the complete 450 mile trip.


The Trace was originally a network of trails blazed by Indians. Later these trails were used by white settlers to extend their commerce and trade. It became a relatively well-worn path traversable by foot or horseback. It is reported to have been traveled in part by famed Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.


The Natchez Trace experienced its heaviest use from 1785 to 1820 by the “Kaintuck” boatmen who floated the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. They sold their cargo and boats and began the trek back north on foot to Nashville and points beyond. In these days folks called it the Devil's Backbone because its remote, thick forest was home to deadly snakes and equally dangerous bandits. Solo travelers took extra caution: one careless step could lead to broken bones, and chances were slim that a Good Samaritan would happen along. In 1801 the United States Army began blazing the trail for use as a postal route. That major work was the initial step in preparing it as a thoroughfare for travelers. By 1809, the trail was fully navigable by wagon. In 1812, Andrew Jackson marched his army down the trace to meet the British in New Orleans. By 1816 the Trace’s popularity began to dissipate as other routes developed to bring goods back and forth between the Louisiana ports and points north. The development of steamboats also contributed to the decline of the Trace as river traffic could then flow back upstream on the various water routes.


The Natchez Trace Parkway was established May 18, 1938 as a national scenic byway. Since then the National Park Service has labored to construct a modern parkway that closely follows the course of the original trace and preserves examples of natural and cultural history.

The morning of the Rodeo Ride we met for breakfast at Dotson’s in Franklin. This restaurant has been the starting point for most of our rides and our waitress usually greets us with the question, “Where are y’all going this time?” We took particular delight this time in telling her we were going to prison. Without batting an eye she put us right back in our place with her next question, “What did you do?”


We decided it would be a crime (get it?) to go the length of the Trace except the section from Highway 100 to Franklin so we left Dotson’s headed for the Trace’s official terminus at Highway 100. It was cloudy that morning but there was no rain. As we pulled onto the Trace, the autumn leaves were swirling down in the breeze along the tree-lined parkway. As the bikes zipped along the leaves that had accumulated on the road overnight were tossed into the air along with those coming down. I felt as though I was in a giant snowglobe full of brilliant orange, bronze, and yellow color that was on display just for my enjoyment. I love riding this time of year!


While I agree that our ‘end’ of the Trace has the best turns and scenery, I was pleasantly surprised by the majesty of the whole length of the road. I have heard so many times that the Trace gets boring after awhile that I almost dreaded riding all the way to the southern end. But even at the southern end the road is punctuated by wonderful scenery and sweet sweeping turns.


As we continued south, the fall colors gave way to more green as the forest transitions to a decidedly more coniferous mix of trees. As you get even further south the trees are decorated with Spanish Moss that has a unique southern beauty all its own.


We made a lunch stop in Tupelo at a place I would not recommend so I won’t mention the name. Ron’s son, Reagan, is in a co-op program with a chemical company in Tupelo so we were able to have a visit with him at lunch. He will soon complete the program and return to Tennessee Tech to finish his degree. It makes us old guys feel good to hang out around a young’un for awhile!


Even with the extra time we took at lunch we got into Natchez and checked into a motel by about 6:30 pm. Total mileage for the day was 479. We had a quick bite of supper and watched the Red Sox win their way to the World Series. Can life get any better? Only if you’ve got a good cigar!


Sunday morning we slept late because we only had another 75 or so miles to go to get to Angola. The Rodeo doesn’t start until 2 pm, even though the gates open at 9 am. From Natchez we crossed the Mississippi and took LA131 to LA15. LA15 practically runs all the way to Angola along the top of a levee next to the river.


At 418 we were supposed to turn off to take a ferry across the river. To our surprise, along with some other rodeo goers, the ferry had been moved due to the impact of Hurricane Francis. The group pooled information and zeroed in on the new ferry site without much trouble. One thing about the ferry sites – they are very rough and involve a steep ride up one side of the levee and down the other to board the ferry. Many of the cars were having trouble with the maneuver and we would have been much more comfortable on dirt bikes. But doing a little bull dogging of our own, we made it without incident.


As we waited for the ferry, we soon realized we had another problem. We didn’t buy our rodeo tickets ahead of time. There was a little sign that said ‘sold out’ that sent a chill up my spine. If I had brought us all the way here just to be turned away without seeing the rodeo, hara-kiri would have been the only way to save face.


I had to sweat that bullet while we disembarked the ferry on the Angola side with the same challenging hill-climb. From the ferry you follow a road across a portion of the prison facility and you get a pretty good view of the farm land, the buildings, and miles and miles of razor wire.

Parking was a real mess on the grass fields that had now turned to mud because of recent rains and heavy traffic. But, kudos go to the prison folks for designating ample, paved motorcycle parking right across from the rodeo’s main gate!


We canvassed the crowd waiting to enter the gate asking if anyone had extra tickets. Within 20 minutes we had scored the three tickets we needed. I felt as though the warden had just commuted my death sentence!


We entered the gates sometime between noon and 1 pm. Just inside the rodeo gates, the adjoining arts and crafts fair is an experience all unto itself. While some of the crafts are truly beautiful, most are very amateurish. Ron said some of the worst looked like bad Vacation Bible School crafts that we did as kids. I noticed that he didn’t tell any of the inmates that! Remember more than half of them are here for murder! There is everything from furniture and curio items to religious plaques and leather products. I even saw an entire grandfather clock made from wooden match sticks. Think of the time that must have taken! But I guess time is one thing that they have a lot of here! In this area some of the inmates are allowed to mix with the visitors, but some are only allowed to sell their crafts through a chain link fence separating them from the visitors. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that these guys must be the worst of the worst.


All morning long inmates in music groups who had worked up acts were performing. Some good, but some were so bad it was a crime. Most performed country or gospel and some mixed the two.


Anyone who wants their own Angola apparel without a lifelong commitment can buy a t-shirt or hat complete with Angola stripes.


All types of food are available at the concession area. In fact, the food is very tasty. I recommend the catfish poor boy!


By the time we finished lunch the rodeo was beginning so we took our seats. The opening festivities seemed endless with the rodeo announcer embellishing everything ad-nauseam. We came to see inmates and bulls, not drill teams on horseback!!


Finally, the rodeo really began. The first inmate event is Bust Out. Eight inmates are released on their own bulls at the same time. Instantly we were caught up in the insanity of this prison rodeo as a riot of bulls and men thrashed around below.


Next, a countless stream of inmates try their hand at bareback riding. What they lack in professional rodeo skills they make up for in guts and enthusiasm. Soon you have forgotten why they are here and are swept up in the enthusiasm of cheering for the ones who aren’t thrown instantly.


Another unique event is inmate poker. Here four inmates are seated around a card table in the middle of the arena while an angry bull is released – the last inmate to get up wins. There were several rounds of this and one wonders why? But then if you’re doing double life with no parole – why not? This event inspired this year’s rodeo poster.


The last event is Guts & Glory, where a poker chip (more the size of a hockey puck) is tied on the forehead of a bull - $500 goes to the inmate who can get it. Usually there are at least 20 inmates in the ring trying to chase down/avoid the bull and get that chip. When Ron found out the prize was $500, I had to hold him back from going down there and joining in.


Cameras are not permitted inside the rodeo grounds. As a result the few pictures that I have included here of the rodeo itself are some that I found posted online. They do accurately portray the scenes we saw there. But the best way to experience this spectacle is as an eyewitness.


The rodeo is over by 5 pm and you have time as you leave Angola for a visit to the museum near the front gate. You can get a glimpse into what life on "the Farm" is like. Exhibits display handmade weapons inmates have fashioned and document violent escapes.


"Old Sparky," the electric chair that has killed 87 men, proudly sits on display along with photos of those who rode its lightening. It was officially retired in 1991 when the state went to lethal injection. Though Angola has changed and come to be regarded as a model prison, the museum takes no shame in documenting its violent past.


There are really no towns even close to the prison. Perhaps the closest is St. Francisville, LA. But it is to the south and we wanted a leg up for the ride home the next day so we decided to return to Natchez. We had ridden 166 miles down to the prison and back. Dinner that night was a blast as we relived the day and all that we had seen and experienced. We all agreed that the only way you want to arrive at a prison is without shackles and a life sentence.

Monday morning we got up bright and early and decided to cross Big Muddy again to the west and travel north to I-20 on US65. The highway runs along the river and through little towns along the way like Waterproof. I can only imagine that its name was coined from unfriendly visits the river has made over the levee.


We rode I-20 only briefly east to Jackson and then returned to Nashville via the Trace. It seemed a fitting end for this journey. The weather was gorgeous and we had the opportunity to see the lush greens turn back into the autumn colors that we are more used to this time of year.

We stopped in Kosciusko, MS for lunch and learned from Derrell, who used to live there, that the name originated with a Polish man named Tadeusz Kosciuszko. He was the first foreign officer to receive a commission from the Continental Congress and to serve in General George Washington's army. I had always thought Kosciusko was an Indian name!


As were neared Nashville we all turned off on our individual routes home. The ride that day was 511 miles making the total for the trip 1,156 miles.


We all highly recommend visiting Angola for the rodeo. If you do, you won’t be disappointed. When you’ve been there, perhaps you’ll appreciate the freedom you have to go and do as you please just a little more than you did before.


For more information about the Angola Prison Rodeo, visit their web site at: http://www.angolarodeo.com. And don’t forget to buy your tickets in advance!


The End

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