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Twenty Guns and Booze

A visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary Rodeo

By Robert Flanagan. Photos by Christine Walters

Two hours ago we were sitting on the elegant porch of The Columns Hotel in New Orleans desperately drinking Bloody Marys, each of us battling our demon hangovers. Now we just drove through the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.

My girlfriend Christine softly strokes my hand and whispers words of encouragement. Our friends, Maggie and Bill, in the back seat are too quiet, probably silently concocting lies about how we picked them up hitchhiking.

The Angola Prison Rodeo is held each October at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Christine read about it in the local newspaper. Maggie snatched the paper and read aloud, gesturing emphatically. Last night it seemed like a wonderful idea.

We bought a bottle of tequila on the road, planning in our college/sporting event type minds, a little tailgate drink before the rodeo. As we approached the prison gate, we saw a guard handing out little slips of paper. The paper listed the prohibited items we must surrender before entering the prison. Upon seeing the sign "Louisiana State Correctional Facility" and the guards, all thoughts of trying to smuggle anything in, like at a concert or ball game, vanished quickly. I slowed the car, frantically searching for an elusive nail file, scissors, aspirin or glue. Of course, the only prohibited items were firearms, alcohol and drugs, but I got this paranoid feeling that the gates would slam shut behind us and I would be suddenly confronted by the crazy crooked smiles of a dozen correctional officers.

The prohibited item in our car was the tequila, which we quickly surrendered. I fully expected it to go in the trash, but instead the guard smiled, tagged it and placed it on one of the most frightening tables imaginable.

Apparently, our fellow rodeo fans were a wild-eyed bunch. The table was covered with guns and booze; silver plated, feminine derringers sitting next to high-powered automatics. Boxes and boxes of bullets were scattered all over, interspersed with bourbon bottles.

Angola was once rated the worst prison in the United States. The prison grounds, with the exception of the phalanx of guards at the gate, are actually quite pleasant. There are no huge walls, no guard towers. It looks like a well tended farm, not a prison. The only indications of its purpose are the disciplined groups of men, marching in close formation with hoes on their shoulders.

We drive past the fields and after a mile can finally see the buildings and gleaming, polished glint of the razor wire fences.

Around the rutted field where we park the car, camouflaged-dressed guards patrol on horseback, heavily armed with rifles and shotguns.

The black suited guards at the gate were intimidating enough but they look like some sort of public-affairs squad compared to these horsemen.

It's oven hot when we step out of the air-conditioned car. The air is a thick heavy thing and it moves with you. The smell of farm animals mingles with the scent of cooking meat and open sewer ditches. The arena is packed, though the rodeo is just starting.

The two cinder-block bathrooms by the gate have already overflowed and are pouring out in front of the ticket booth. At the gate, the woman selling tickets is flanked on either side by two guards. I step over a wad of toilet paper, mashed with a boot print, and wince slightly when I see the guards looking at me.

They approach quickly, snatch Christine's camera bag without a word, and search it thoroughly.

I recall seeing a rodeo on Wide World of Sports or ESPN or something. Then again, I also recall watching The Best Lumberjack Competition. Since I would not understand Lumber-Jacking, I don't know why I expect to understand this.

It appears they are all riding bulls and horses. Apparently the goal is to stay on the animal as long as possible. Seems simple enough in theory, but almost all of the inmates are thrown off in the first second and then get stomped. This elicits great squeals of delight from the small children next to us. Several inmates try to scramble off their animals before they get out of the gate. All around us the more knowledgeable parents are busily trying to explain these rodeo nuances to their kids while the men are getting smashed.

"Gotta move with the bull, be the bull, not fight it," one says.

Be the bull? This kid is four years old. The bull's scrotum is like two cantaloupes in a stocking.

These first few events seem prolonged, painful to watch and violent. The inmates, torn, bloody and holding their ribs, move with glazed looks from one fiasco to the next. They don't look like I remember from TV. Those swaggering, cocky cowboys, and frantic, talented clowns. No one seemed to be getting hurt on TV. No one bled.

"Shouldn't they at this?" I ask Christine. She is alternately glaring at a grease smear on her sleeve and a leathery woman next to her who is eating fried dough and smoking.

"I want a divorce." She growls.

"Baby...we're not married." I stammer.

"I'm practicing." I have heard four different women say that since we got here. It's like a mantra. That and 'suck it.' I've heard at least a dozen children yell 'suck it' in the past half hour.

Bill and Maggie are sitting in front of us. They are readers, the type of people who get a new piece of equipment, TV, VCR, whatever and it sits in the box for at least a day while they studiously pick apart the instructions. Not me. I tear the thing out and break every rule of fragile equipment, shoving in plugs where it looks like they go, forcing pieces when they don't move. I don't even open the book until something starts smoking.

They are reading the rodeo program I didn't know existed.

Confused, I lean down and ask Bill. "Is this what it is supposed to be like? They all look really hurt."

"They're supposed to get hurt. Apparently that is the shtick. It says in the program that none of these guys know how to ride horses. That's why everyone comes here."

"They know how to rape though, don't they." Maggie says. She has been saying this since we arrived, convinced all the inmates are in here for rape.

"I of them might be in here for drugs Maggie. Or, you know, like... assault?" I say.

"Don't kid yourself, wiseass."

We have only been here for a few hours but already the mood of our group is getting black. Yesterday, during cocktails on the porch we were different.

"Guys. Do you want to go? I would really like to leave." I say. Bill's eyes show definite relief, but Maggie grabs his arm roughly.

Next to me Christine is on the edge of her seat. She turns slowly and stares at me. The big event of the rodeo is starting.

"No." Maggie says softly.

In the last event a red poker chip is taped between the horns of a bull. The bull is then whipped into a frenzy and turned out in the ring. Ten convicts try to snatch the poker chip. The winner gets 100 dollars. I mentally evaluate my checking account and consider offering all ten of them 100 dollars each to limp back to their cells.

The bull charges out and goes for the closest man, flipping him over the wall in two seconds flat. The remaining nine fan out around the bull and begin making dashes in toward the horns. No one even gets close. The bull charges left and right just nicking inmates who go shooting off into the dirt.

Two men go in from opposite sides, one taking a horn in the stomach, the other, the one with the shaved head, is blasted backward by the bull's shoulder, his right leg folding under his body at a sickening angle. The remaining inmates scatter and the bull turns slowly.

The man with the shaved head's leg is obviously broken as he stands, wobbling on the other. There is no one within twenty feet of him. The crowd around us makes a collective and surprising sound, not bloodthirsty cries or vindictive howls from before, but a low groan of compassion and sickened realization.

The bull has plenty of room for a running start and the man's sad, pathetic hopping still leaves a virtually unmoving target. His right leg is twisted, dragging, foot turned outward in the dust. He is looking over his shoulder. I can see his face, even from way up here. There is no more false bravado, no more posing for his fellow convicts. His face is terror and bewilderment.

He is hit squarely from behind and folds backwards over the bull's head, then shoots straight up, limbs flapping like they are barely connected, and the bull is on him before he hits the ground. Through the cloud of dust his body twists and whips back and forth in the slashing horns and hooves.

A few inmates try to distract the bull, no funny clowns and no guards. No one on a horse rides up to stop this.

He is pushed violently through the dirt towards the wall, lifted into the air repeatedly, his body totally limp, flopping like a rag doll. Back down, pushed through the dirt some more. In the air again he hits the wooden wall with a dull thump and the bull's horns thrash at his unmoving body until finally some unseen hands pull him underneath the boards.

Somewhere on a microphone, the warden is calling an end to the rodeo.

Walking back to the car I ask Christine softly if she will drive home.

"Suck it." She says.

We inch slowly, silently through the gate, leaving the tequila behind.