The price of admission is $20, but my mouse hovers over the Check Out button with a tinge of trepidation. My reluctance? To give money to an institution that forces hard labor at 2-20 cents an hour, houses its residents in 6 by 9 foot cells, and murders with the authority of the state. A timer on the page counts down and at, :23, I finalize the order. Tickets to the Angola Prison Rodeo are sent to my email.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault traces the 17th century turn from draconian displays of torture, public stoning and the guillotine towards modes of imprisonment with the hope of “reform.” In opposition to displays of brute monarchical force, this reformative prerogative became the foundation of the modern prison system. For us, the lingering question raised by Foucault’s work is: where has this reformative agenda gone today?
The Angola Prison Rodeo seems a brute and blatant return to this performative mode of “justice.” The prison website lists the Rodeo events: Bull Riding, where untrained inmates attempt to stay on angry bulls, Wild Horse Race, where three-man teams try to rope a horse for long enough for a team member to mount it (a latent parody of escape), Convict Poker, where four inmates sit at a card table in the middle of the arena playing poker, when “suddenly, a wild bull is released with the sole purpose of unseating the poker players” and, the finale, Guts and Glory, where an inmate attempts to remove a poker chip fastened to “the meanest, toughest Brahma bull available.” The contests are explicitly violent and obviously gladiatorial.
In 1998, a documentary about Angola Prison was released called The Farm. It provides a moving insight into one of the largest prisons in the United States. Angola, once rated the bloodiest prison in America, is 18,000 acres—larger than Manhattan—and is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi river. 70% of prisoners are sentenced to life without parole; the majority of the rest have sentences so long they will die within the prison walls. Angola also houses and executes death row prisoners. And, twice a year, for one month, it hosts a rodeo where prisoners perform for a packed stadium of entertainment-seekers and fellow prisoners.
The documentary is a tragic and necessary introduction to the bi-yearly festival. It follows six prisoners, including a 22-year-old newly sentenced to life without parole and inmates who have been inside for 20 and 25 years. Clips abound of angry German shepherds (bred on the facility for law enforcement), men (primarily black) being marched into the fields to grows cash crops like cotton, corn, and soybeans for four cents an hour (a clear evocation of the plantation that the prison was built on), and a slick-talking, unselfconscious warden explaining the economics and management of the institution.
Prisoners repeatedly talk about hope: hope of parole, hope of redemption, hope of escape—in dreams or in a coffin—as the warden smugly recites statistics about the miniscule number of prisoners granted clemency. Questions about the constitutionality of the death penalty are barely mentioned. And, those who give up hope, as one man who has served 25 of his 75 year sentence explains, fall into the darkest chasms of prison life.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration of urban blacks and Latinos in the 1970s was “a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control.” She contends that Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs was a racially coded backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. Prisons were used to “warehouse” inner-city youth, denying them proper employment, education and social mobility, while ingraining a deeply rooted sense of shame in them and, by extension, their race.
While most inmates at Angola are charged with violent crimes, the warehousing of primarily black men, who make up three-quarters of the prison population, seems undeniable. Perpetrated through the mechanisms of a radically biased court system, racist parole boards, and a hyper-conservative governor’s office, lock-up in Angola is for life. In part, prisoners generate the means to sustain the institution that imprisons them, ranging from work in the fields and cattle farms to senior inmates working as counselors. Despite decades of education and community service, parole is almost categorically denied: reform is not Angola’s agenda.
When I arrive at Angola, thousands of predominantly white Louisianans waddle towards a stadium surrounded by tall, barbed wire fences. A monolithic rock-climbing wall peaks over the top of the gates, as if poking fun at the dream of escape. The events draw around 70,000 spectators on Saturdays and Sundays. Inside, inmates are ramparted between pinched fences, hocking hand-carved rocking chairs, beds and trinkets (and at what a low price!); the craftwork entices hungry consumers, though the marketability of such a skill seems dubious outside the prison walls and within a global-industrial economy.
The stadium is packed: children gleefully run about, adults chat and cheer, popcorn and cotton candy is sold in the stands. Inmates, sitting stoically, are barricaded in their own sections of the arena. A few ranch hands lay hula-hoops in the center of the sandy stadium and half a dozen prisoners take their position within them. Suddenly, an irate bull is loosed, tossing the men in the air and goring them with uncovered horns. The last man standing, a stout white inmate, is the victor.
Inmates try to ride raging bulls—not one gets more than a meter out of the gate. Convict Poker is probably the most stomach-wrenching event. Four inmates uneasily sit at the table in anticipation. When the furious bull is released, it tears the table to shreds, tossing them aside, impaling their flimsy protective gear. Prisoners limp back to their enclosure; from the stands, it’s impossible to tell whether with a sense of pride or just a tear in their gut.
As a spectator, the most frightening part of the Rodeo is that it is, in fact, entertaining. As the smell of fresh cracklins wafts through the stands, it’s too easy to get lost in the clapping, shouts and excitement. But it is a racist prison system with its own political agenda that has hoisted these men on the horns. Incarceration has sown and grown such a maddening sense of boredom that inmates volunteer to be the objects of this violent voyeurism. Their self-objectification and the risks they endure yield a few bucks and, at best, a bump in their social standing within the prison walls.
In a Foucauldian sense, this brute display of violence is a manifestation of an antiquated form of judicial power: it latently threatens potential offenders in an age when disciplinary modes of power are at work well before any sentence has been handed down. The lives and suffering of these prisoners has become pure spectacle, not limited to the offended and their families (as with the prison’s executions), but available to anyone with twenty bucks. Imprisoned by a biased system, inmates’ lives, time and bodies have become a commodity that funds the institution that imprisons them.
Narratives of rehabilitation, upon which the modern prison system was formed, do not function within an institution where 90% of the inmates will never leave. There is no point in reforming for a society that you will never rejoin. In the context of a potent Christian philosophy, reformative narratives are reshaped into stories of religious redemption. The warden and prison pastors alike spread tales of redemption, which are internalized by prisoner’s force-fed false hope.
The Angola Prison Rodeo functions as self-flagellation for inmates within a racist and self-perpetuating prison system. Narratives of Christian guilt are used to exploit prisoners and paying spectators take pleasure in the violence inflicted upon the “guilty.” Profits from the Rodeo are routed back into the prison, which then warehouses more young black men. Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, keeps 1 in 55 adults behind bars. However, incarceration is big business throughout the United States, and the Angola Prison Rodeo is a loud and unapologetic display of how profitable those incarcerated are, and a revelation of a population unfazed by the brutalization of “irredeemable” bodies.