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The Angola Prison Rodeo

By Elaine Cassel

Formerly a plantation farmed by slaves who came from Angola, Africa, Angola State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, is the largest penitentiary in the United States. During the month of September each year, selected inmates participate in a rodeo, to which the public is invited. Most men have never been on a horse until they are chosen to be part of the show, and they risk life and limb for the chance to win a few bucks, or a belt buckle. God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison, by Daniel Bergner (Ballentine, 1999), is the story of the rodeo, and a year that Bergner spent inside Angola's walls.

Louisiana has the harshest punishment laws in the United States. Where most states have a 40-year upper limit on a sentence for rape, Louisiana has a 75-year maximum. Juries, mostly white, routinely impose the maximum sentence against convicted defendants, mostly black men. Older inmates sentenced during the 1960s, when the Supreme Court of the United States placed a ban on capital punishment, are spared death by lethal injection. But they will spend their lives there. For as Burl Cain, Angola's warden says, in Louisiana, "life means life."

Angola used to be the bloodiest prison in America. Entering inmates had to learn how to acquire or make weapons to protect themselves from other inmates. Deaths at the hands of guards, or from literally being worked to death in the fields, were not uncommon. For a time before Cain arrived, Angola was under government supervision due to extreme violations of prisoner's civil rights by state guards and wardens.

With Cain, surely one of the most forward-thinking prison wardens in American today, all that has changed. Cain can't do anything about the long sentences, which he contends are outrageously harsh, but he can help his charges "grow up" in prison. Eighty-five percent of Angola's residents will die there. For the 15 percent who will walk out alive (and even for those who will die inside), Cain says that his most important job is to see that they don't give up hope. There is always hope, he says, even if you are sentenced to death.

One way of giving them hope, at least once a year, is to open up the gates of the prison to a rodeo. Men must have exemplary disciplinary records to be considered. Those who make the cut ride wild bulls and wild horses and play absurd games like "inmate poker." Four inmates, dressed in prison stripes, are seated at a card table in the middle of the ring. A wild bull is let loose to attack them. The last one left at the table—the one who has not run for his life or been gored by the bull—wins. In addition to a few dollars and fame, the winner proves that he is the toughest prisoner in Angola.

God of the Rodeo is about far more than the annual perverse spectacle of man against bull. Bergner has written a harrowing, compelling, and compassionate tale of how men strive for redemption in the face of society's condemnation and search for freedom inside prison walls.

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