Monday, October 02, 2006

Cowboys and Convicts

When we were living in New York, my wife took to answering the question of how we met with the immediate and unblinking response, "prison rodeo." Fellow expat Southerners seemed to find this the most deliciously outrageous thing they'd ever heard. Non-Southerners, on the other hand, were often given a bit more pause. While not technically true (and by "technically" here I mean, "in any way resembling what is actually"), this response created an air of absurdity and strangeness that seemed about right for a couple from Louisiana. It's hard to think of two words that, yoked together, could produce a more curious setting or evoke a thicker fog of assumptions--a sort of short-hand cultural Rorschach test.

This past weekend, we finally got around to attending the famous rodeo at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary. It's something I've always wanted to do, particularly after reading Daniel Bergner's God of the Rodeo. If you know nothing at all about the Angola Prison Rodeo, a quick glance at the list of events is a good start. But you should also be aware that these events take place within a county-fair atmosphere: rides for the kids, dozens of food booths, and hundreds of craft stalls in which the inmates sell their handiwork. And the larger setting is "8,000 acres of the finest farm land in the south," accoding to the prison website. "The Farm," as the prison is commonly known, is indeed a massive working farm and ranch spread over gentle hills and manicured drives, a gorgeous setting when not viewed through razor wire. It is also the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., a place in which (again according to the official website), "86% are violent offenders. Fifty-two percent (52%) of the inmate population are serving a life sentence and will never be released from prison." Okay, now imagine the county fair there again, kids with snow-cones, adults haggling for fine woodwork (rocking chairs, armoires, gun cabinets, toy trains and trucks) with inmates who stand behind a chain-link fence, just behind the tables on which their crafts are displayed. Add to that some novice bull-riding, the "inmate poker" game--inmates seated around a card table with playing cards in their hands who play a game of chicken with a wild bull loosed into the ring and taunted by the rodeo clowns into charging the table; last inmate still seated with his cards wins--and you have some idea just how surreal this event is.

The prison rodeo bears about the same relation to a professional rodeo that the tough-man contest bears to professional boxing, and it's probably the closest we come to the lesser spectacles of the Roman Coliseum. The day's final event, "Guts or Glory," pits man against animal in a way that taps into some primal neck-hair-tingling fears from deep in the evolutionary memory. A dozen or so inmates all vie for the chance to snatch a poker chip (worth $500) tied to the forehead of a 2,000-lb brahma bull. The bull charges erratically, flinging inmates into the air with a toss of its head, and the helpless contestants go airborn as though thrown by an explosion. A great gasp from the audience, the breath held until the contestant picks himself up from the dirt arena floor and scurries to climb the fence. The difference in scale between a 150-lb man and the mountainous bull is alarming, terryifying, and I must admit, exhilarating.

Many of my friends won't attend a rodeo because they consider it animal cruelty. The inmates have made their own decision, they figure, but any harm that comes to the animals in this display is inexcusable. They needn't have worried Sunday; the animals seemed to get the best of every contest. Serious human injuries were mercifully few, as well. One of the first bareback riders did come down hard on his shoulder and back, though; he wasn't moving when the EMTs hauled him away.

I wondered at the time and still do what exactly to make of the whole affair. The inmates are participating of their own free will (the m.c. on horesback was sure to make that point, when he wasn't engaging in Hee-Haw banter with his counterpart in the announcer's booth). But, honestly, given the prison statistics above, these men were not exactly choosing from a full menu. Life in prison or a quick and glorious exit before a crowd? Not a choice I want. There is, as well, a plainly sadistic element to the events dreamed up particularly for this rodeo. Standard rodeo events such as the "Buddy Pick Up" or even bull riding seem unexceptional beside "Inmate Poker" or "Guts and Glory." Each time the m.c. announced an event "unique to the Angola rodeo," I cringed, knowing I was about to watch something brutal.

And yet, it's impossible to experience the rodeo and not sense the honor that co-exists with the brutality. We saw some incredible acts of courage in that arena, and even if the inmate-cowboys had left behind the better part of valor when they walked into the ring, the indefatigable determination with which they took up these challenges--challenges for which they were ill-equipped and in many cases, it seemed, set up for failure--created a sense of dignity there. I watched a man sit, unflinching in his chair, as a bull lowered its head and smashed to splinters the table at which he was sitting. I saw that same man keep his seat as the bull lowered its head and charged directly into the man's chest. (The warden allowed that this particular inmate, although he was eliminated from the game, should receive $50 for hanging tough.) And the rodeo clowns, the same clowns who taunted the bull into charging the card table, performed extraordinary feats of courage as they turned the attention of enraged bulls on themselves and away from a prone and dazed contestant who had just been thrown. I also saw one of the contestants in the wild-cow milking contest dragged across the arena floor, refusing to let go of the rope, in some impossible hope that he could muscle the cow to a standstill. After the rodeo, I saw this same inmate, his striped prisoner/cowboy shirt streaked with red dirt, step out into the crowd of visitors milling among the crafts (one of the trusted inmates allowed beyond the fences). He was maybe forty, his hair thinning a bit, his mustache thick and dark, his face as filthy as his shirt and deeply lined under the dirt. And he was beaming.


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