Prison rodeos thrive at Louisiana's hardline Angola state penitentiary

Angola's rodeo and craft fair is one of a dying breed of festivals where inmates and the public gather for a true American tradition

Some tensed as the gate swung open, digging their feet into the dirt and pushing the sides of their boots up against the insides of the plastic rims of the brightly coloured hula hoops that lay at their feet. Others stood loose, ready to run.

The bull surged at the middle of the pack and, with a flick of its head, knocked the nearest man skyward. Then it whirled around, flinging hoops and bodies. The smart guys scrammed; the bravest stayed in their circles until the animal came for them. In a couple of seconds it was over – the contestants leapt over the nearest fence and to safety, and with the arena empty the bull calmly trotted out the exit gate. And then more hoops were laid out and another eight men emerged from the stands to face the next bovine tornado.

This is "inmate pinball", or, as they also call it in Louisiana, offender rehabilitation.

'I'm not sitting in my room wondering what it's like'

Louisiana state penitentiary is a 75-minute drive north of Baton Rouge, next to snake-infested woodland and clenched on three sides by the Mississippi. It is the biggest maximum security prison in the US, and one of the most notorious.

It sits on 18,000 acres of former plantations – an area larger than Manhattan –dubbed Angola in a nod to the origin of the slaves who toiled there. Some inmates are still obliged to work the farmland.

Every Sunday in October, and on the third weekend in April, Angola hosts a rodeo and craft fair where some convicts compete and others sell their wares to the general public. Families mix with killers and armed robbers at the stalls outside the arena, then head for their seats to watch the sport.

Prison rodeos are a dissolving American tradition. Oklahoma state penitentiary last held its tournament in 2009. Texas held a rodeo near its death row for more than 50 years, from 1931 to 1986; the disused arena was finally demolished in 2012. Yet Angola's rodeo, which will celebrate its 50th birthday next year, has not only endured but expanded. Spectator capacity has trebled over the past couple of decades, to around 11,000 per day. It often sells out.

The show smoothly blends brutality and sentimentality as only America can. Prisoners form a prayer circle and hold hands in the opening ceremony. An inmate tenderly sings the national anthem. Flags sway proudly. Then the action starts.

In all, over the course of two hours, the prisoners take part in nine events. The schedule includes "inmate pinball", in which the aim is to be the final man standing in his hula hoop, and "convict poker," which begins with four men seated on fold-up chairs at a flimsy card table in the centre of the arena. A bull is released, and goaded by rodeo clowns to rush the table – the winner is the last still in his seat. On a recent Sunday the crowd gasped with guilty delight as a 1,500-pound bull rammed the table and sent four men flying with what looked from the stands like the force of a serious car crash.

The climax is an event known as "guts and glory," in which a couple of dozen inmates compete against each other to win $500 for plucking a poker chip from between the horns of a bull that is, we are assured, the meanest and toughest available.

There are also more conventional contests, such as bucking bronco and bull riding – daunting enough for professionals, let alone amateurs without training or practice. But there are prizes and kudos to be claimed: money, belt buckles, a steak dinner at the awards ceremony and a write-up in the prison magazine.

Twenty-four-year-old Anthony Kinchen is serving a 40-year sentence for armed robbery. Inside the prison, he normally earns two cents an hour cleaning bathrooms, but he hoped to make $150 in one day from the rodeo in order to buy gear to use in the prison's boxing programme. "It's fun, all right, but a lot of people get hurt," he said.

Shamichael Tillman first took part in the rodeo's wild horse-riding in April and was back for more. "It was fun, it's a thrill, something I'd never experienced," he said. "There's mixed feelings. Some people are like, 'I won't do it'. Me, I'll do it, I'm not sitting in my room wondering what it's like. Before every event I pray." Tillman, who is 29 years old, is two years into an 83-year sentence for one count of attempted murder and two counts of attempted manslaughter. He picks his disciplines carefully: this time, he chose wild-cow milking, in which inmates team up to try and milk an agitated cow as it runs around the arena. "I like stuff where I can run when it gets dangerous," he said. His team won $140.

"As rodeo progresses with safety features, we do the same thing," said the warden, Burl Cain. "Our inmates wear their helmets, wear [padded] vests so they don't get hurt. We have very few injuries. We have broken jaws occasionally, or teeth; now we wear the masks. You'll have someone stepped on, so he could get a broken leg. But it's like rodeo in America – it's what we do. We don't want them hurt. This is not to come out here and see people harmed by the animals, nor the animals harmed. This is about traditional American rodeo and we're using that as a rehabilitative tool."

Cain said the rodeo is expected to generate around $4m in revenue this year, and that any profits from it are reinvested in prison services such as educational programmes. "It takes a big drag off the taxpayer," he said.

'It's like a high you never had'

The arts and crafts show that accompanies the rodeo includes music, pony rides, face painting and a raffle. But for the armed guards and barbed-wire double fence only a few feet away from the stalls and carousel, it looks like any other southern small-town fair. Some prisoners interact freely with visitors. Others, yet to earn the right to mingle, have to hawk their goods from behind a fence.

"The arts and crafts part is entrepreneur training for the inmates for rehabilitation," said Cain. "[They] have to go sell it, market it, come back and restock supplies. Then they have to pay their taxes. They have to make enough on what they've sold to have a little bit of money for themselves … maybe when they get out of jail they'll go be an entrepreneur and not be a thief."

One inmate, Brian Alexander, set up shop close to a food stand offering a battered concoction called "Fried Coke." Alexander, 53, is originally from California. He was heading to Florida when, he says, he "got kind of stuck" in New Orleans and stayed there. Eventually convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of death or life without parole in Louisiana, he was given the latter and has been stuck in Angola for 23 years. On the outside he was a tree trimmer. Now he makes stainless steel buckles, necklaces and earrings, some bearing the logo of sports teams, all as professional-looking as anything you might find in a mall. He asks $25-40 a piece for them.

Before moving into the safer milieu of handicraft, Alexander "busted ribs" as a rodeo contestant. "It's like a high you never had, can't never get," he said. "Participation as a rider is like showmanship. Here [in the fair] you build a temporary rapport with the people. They might ask you what your crime is, or what you did to get here. You can relate with them a little bit on that level."

Another, John Sheehan, sat beside a table draped with leather belts. A 48-year-old former US air force worker, he has been behind bars for about 27 years and at Angola since 1988.

"I first started in the arena as one of the contestants. I grew up around animals and so I wanted to ride in the rodeo. I broke my leg, broke my tailbone, got a concussion, but I also won eight what we call championship buckles in the rodeo. I got a little older, my body doesn't heal quite as well as it used to, so my wife told me not to ride any more. So I started with the hobbycrafts," he said. "Most people really don't understand what we have here at the Louisiana state penitentiary. When they think of prisons they think of Lockdown, all these documentaries that look real bad and real mean. When the public comes in here and they get to interact with us they find out we're people – we're somebody that messed up, but we're still people, we don't have horns growing out of our ears. And they come to think, 'Well, man, maybe this guy does deserve a chance to get out of prison.'"

Sheehan is serving life without parole for second-degree murder. For him and others, these cordial Sundays with strangers are a painful sort of reward: evidence that they belong in a world beyond the walls that they will almost certainly never see again.

'It's something that takes me away from here'

If it were a country, Louisiana would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. The US as a whole currently tops that list, with 716 prisoners per 100,000 people. The rate in Louisiana is more than twice as high. The state's prison population has doubled in the past 20 years. There are now more than 5,000 inmates at Angola, and over three-quarters of them are serving life without parole or sentences so long they are effectively life terms. It has the highest ratio of "lifers" of any US prison.

Faced with inmates who could become despondent due to their lengthy sentences, Cain tries to keep his charges busy and hopeful. He has introduced a small-business ethos, encouraged education and religion, and offers treats like better jobs and the rodeo as incentives for good behaviour.

Cooped in a pen with 30-odd others, each wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, Timothy Gay waited for the stadium to fill and the games to begin. There was the same nervous energy you see in teams lining up before a football match. Under Louisiana's "three-strikes" law, Gay, 38, is serving life for the armed robbery of a convenience store in 1999 that netted Gay and his accomplice $120 and a packet of cigarettes.

He first took part in the rodeo in 2001 and competes regularly even though he once suffered a ruptured testicle in a riding accident. In 2012, Gay made $475. But it seems that as important as the money and the prestige, and worth the bruises, is the fleeting feeling of independence he gets when he steps into the arena to perform. The furious beast will probably win. Still, there is a chance that for just a couple of seconds he will take control and earn the applause of folks who in any other context would view him with contempt – that he will be not just a criminal, but a champion.

"It's something that takes me away from here for that moment, gives some peace of mind," he said. "I'm in prison, but for that moment, I'm not."

© Guardian News and Media 2013