Our View: California’s counties could learn from the nation’s only prison rodeo

Gold Country Media journalist reports from Angola
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
-A +A

Editor’s Note: On April 20, Gold Country Media reporter Scott Thomas Anderson spent the day at the Angola Prison Rodeo, held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, two hours north of New Orleans. Anderson was allowed to interview rodeo riders convicted of offenses such as murder and armed robbery — men who were about to test their grit in “the Wildest Show in the South.”

Born and bred in California’s central Gold Country, I’ve been hanging around the dust and desperation of rodeos for my entire existence. My first major journalism assignment was shadowing a rookie bull rider in the summer of 2007, and I’ve since covered a number of broken-knuckle standoffs between man and beast. However, when I arrived at Angola Prison on April 20 of this year, I knew I was witnessing a rodeo where the stakes were far higher than any cowboy cash or silver buckle — the stakes were nothing less than the possibility of redemption.

Angola Prison houses more than 6,000 inmates, 4,000 of whom are serving sentences of life without parole. Unlike California’s prisons, where a huge number of inmates spend the majority of their time sitting idly on “the yard,” filing lawsuits, devising smuggling schemes and solidifying gang alliances, inmates at the Angola Prison work eight hours a day, six days a week on an 18,000-acre farming operation. After seven years of good conduct, inmates can apply to have more meaningful, purpose-driven careers inside the facility. Angola is a prison with an award-winning inmate-written magazine for the public, an inmate-operated radio station heard throughout St. Francisville, inmate bands that perform at events, inmate dog-breeders, inmate horse-breeders, inmate Hospice workers and inmate seminary specialists.

It’s also the only prison in America with inmate bronc-busters and bull riders.

Before these careers and activities were in place, Angola Prison was a cluster of human anger and despair — a place where the majority of inmates had nothing to live for and nothing to lose. Violence, rapes and suicides were endemic. When Burl Cain became the new warden in 1995, he began instilling reforms, including the prison rodeo.

As a Californian, I was witnessing a number of bull-fighting events I’d never seen before, including “Pin Ball,” where inmates stand in hula-hoops as a half-ton of hooves and muscle barrels straight at them. There’s also “Guts and Glory,” where convicts rush straight at a horned berserker and try to grab a chit off its forehead.

And beyond the western-Gothic spectacle of the rodeo is an even more important story of innovation going on at Angola Prison — one Californians should pay attention to in our new era of “criminal realignment.” Even inmates sentenced to life without parole at Angola can earn enough good conduct credits, and take enough satellite college courses, to become certified adjunct college instructors through the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. Now, you may be wondering, “What kind of student would it be appropriate for ‘Professor Lifer’ inside Angola Prison to teach?” The answer is young, non-violent inmates serving short prison terms, drug addicts and former gang members in desperate need of certified job skills and unflinching guidance if they’re to have a chance of not ending up permanent residents of the Louisiana criminal justice landscape. Angola Prison calls this its offender teaching offender inmate mentor program.

John Sheehan, an inmate instructor at Angola with two master’s degrees, told me, “This is a chance for us to give back. I’ve been in this place 27 years, and if I can do something to help a young man who’s just come into the system from ending up the same way, that’s what I want to do. Plus, we all have family members on the outside, and we don’t want them to become victims of crimes, either. This is our chance to play a role in breaking the cycle.”

So, for all of the talk about the “tough-on-crime South,” Louisiana State Penitentiary is thinking outside the box in order to pull meaning from tragedy and move away from failed rehabilitation methods.

Is California?

Since passage of the controversial law, AB 109, all 58 counties basically have their own mini prison systems. For better or worse, punishment and the possibility of rehabilitation within each county will be self-determined. While claims from California’s department of corrections that all AB 109 offenders are “non-violent” are simply not true, the fact remains that communities are now stuck with them and will have tough and risky decisions to make. Counties will need to balance public safety with new counseling and drug treatment innovations. Asking former criminals who have truly been rehabilitated — if and when they can be found — for help in battling for their hometowns’ futures might be a place to start.

Scott Thomas Anderson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at ScottA_RsvPT