Buckaroo! It's the jailhouse rodeo

Louisiana lifers earn a living from riding the bulls, discovers Trevor Snapp
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The Independent US

The average sentence at Angola prison is 85 years. Most inmates will never know the outside world again.

But a small piece of the outside gets into Angola, more formally known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary: the prison's infamous rodeo, which has run since 1965. According to the program guide, "it wasn't much in those days... just staged for the entertainment of prisoners and employees. But it was fun."

So much fun, in fact, that four years later a 4,500 capacity arena was built to hold the growing public interest in watching criminals get gored by two-ton bulls. Today, the spectacle is an even bigger deal. At the most recent annual event, the crowd had grown to 10,000. And just like 30 years ago, the audience is overwhelmingly white, and the inmates overwhelmingly black.

James Blackburn, a 54-year-old murderer with a grizzled jaw and a rack of fake teeth, has ridden wild bulls in the rodeo for the last decade. It has not been easy. "I got my teeth knocked, my shoulder and a bunch of bones broken, lost consciousness a number of times," he says. A senior medic at the prison adds: "Most of what we get we call trauma. Broken back, concussions, loss of consciousness, loss of wind. Today someone got their tongue cut out by a horse's hoof."

The rodeo is not without its critics, who consider it a dehumanizing tourist attraction. But warden Burl Cain disagrees – and since his arrival 15 years ago he has overseen a dramatic fall in violence. The prison is now seen as a model on how to give lifers a second chance.

The inmates themselves, meanwhile, volunteer for the rodeo, which offers them the free-world dreams of money (in prizes), girls (in the crowd), and hero status. In the climactic Guts and Glory event, 15 inmates try to take a red chit from the forehead of an enormous bull. Half a dozen competitors are thrown high in the air before a particularly large man manages to grab the prize: he pumps his fists, in celebration at the $500 he has won.

Half is enough to last until the next rodeo, in the prison's miniature economy; the other half goes into a mandatory savings account for the winner's eventual release. If, that is, that day should ever come.