JULY’S FEATURED YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS EVENT: THE ANGOLA PRISON RODEO, LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARY

An Angola inmate tries to hold his own on a bucking bull.

By Rachel Hagan, Art of the Rural Intern

The Angola Prison Rodeo began in 1964 as a way for inmates and personnel of the Louisiana State Penitentiary to pass the time. Now celebrating its 50th year, the “Wildest Show in the South” has matured into the longest-running prison rodeo in the nation. The audience began as a few onlookers sitting on their parked trucks and watching the show through a fence. Word got around, and the premises continually expanded to accommodate the growing number of fans. Now the rodeo is housed in a huge 11,000-seat stadium that was built for the annual event.

Many guests come especially for the arts and crafts festival, an event inmates have been preparing for year-round. They have a huge range of work that includes sculpture, painting, woodwork, leatherwork, jewelry making, and miniatures. The arts and crafts bring in a large amount of revenue (some pieces sell for hundreds of dollars), and allow some of the prisoners an opportunity to stand with their work and talk with their potential customers.

The prisoners aren’t professional cowboys – many have no prior experience with ranches or rodeos and they aren’t able to practice beforehand like the pros. But the rodeo is far from boring. The events consist of classics like bull riding and rodeo clowns, but also throw in some specialties like Convict Poker, in which four inmates sit at a table and pretend to play cards when a bull is released into the stadium. Whoever can remain seated at the table is the winner. Then there’s Wild Cow Milking, in which the cowboys have to reign in an angry cow long enough to milk it. The participants frequently sustain injuries and broken bones, but still sign up voluntarily.

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A game of Convict Poker gets broken up.

The rodeo is more than a day of entertainment; it gives the inmates of Angola something to work towards. Permission to participate is used year-round within the prison as an incentive for good behavior. Participants have the chance to win cash prizes and the coveted “All-Around Cowboy” title. But more than that, it gives the inmates the chance to “be king for a day,” as one warden put it. They can connect with people outside the system and show their talents to a supportive audience. People come from all over to attend the rodeo every year, including the inmates’ own family members and children. The Angola Prison Rodeo gives these men a chance to have control over the way they are perceived, and reign as cowboys instead of prisoners.

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Angola rodeo performers display flags

For more information about The Angola Prison Rodeo please visit: http://www.angolarodeo.com/. Tickets for the 2014 Rodeo recently became available in July. This family-friendly event will run every Sunday through the month of October – the arts and crafts start at 9 a.m. and the rodeo at 2 p.m.

Please mark your calendars for this fantastic event, check out the Angola story on the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, and report back to us at Art of the Rural to tell us about your experience! Please use the social media hash tag #ruralarts in any social media posts from the event.

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THE YEAR OF THE RURAL ARTS is a biennial program of events, conversations, and online features celebrating the diverse, vital ways in which rural arts and culture contribute to American life. The Year is coordinated by Art of the Rural and organized by a collective of individuals, organizations, and communities from rural and urban locales across the nation.

The inaugural Year is a collaborative, grassroots effort designed to build steam over the course of 2014. To present a more equitable representation and a more comprehensive narrative of rural arts in culture, all online features will be freely shared across websites and social media. For more information on the Year of the Rural Arts, visit: www.artoftherural.org.