Prison Rodeos Provide Escape (From Routine)
ANGOLA, La. - For 8.8 seconds, convicted murderer Michael Fasola felt like a free man - courtesy of a 1,600-pound Brahman bull charging down on him.
Fasola, 27, is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was convicted in 2003 of killing his roommate. But this week, Fasola was one of about 100 inmates at the penitentiary who voluntarily participated in the Angola Prison Rodeo.
It's one of only two rodeos in the U.S. performed almost entirely by inmates. The other is at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
"Incredible," Fasola said as he dusted off his jeans and hair. "All those people watching, cheering you on. It's like time stops. You feel free for a day."
At one time, there were as many as six prison rodeos around the country, said Art Leonardo, executive director of the North American Association of Wardens&Superintendents. Fear of lawsuits from injured inmates and lack of political will caused most of them to close, he said.
"There's an admiration for being able to put something like that together," said Leonardo, who has visited the Angola rodeo three times. (The Louisiana penitentiary is better known as Angola State Prison.) "Once you get there, you realize, it's a lot more than a rodeo."
Every Sunday in October and one weekend in April, the Angola inmates ride bulls, wrestle steers and try to pluck wooden chips from the horns of a rampaging bull. Spectators pay $10 each to attend. The show sold out four times this year. A crowd-favorite event: Convict Poker, where four inmates sit around a poker table as a Brahman bull is let loose upon them. Last man to stand wins.
Inmate Alex Hennis, 34, has participated the past 10 years, specializing in events such as Wild Cow Milking, where a team of inmates try to subdue a 900-pound Black Angus cow long enough to extract some milk. Over the years, Hennis has had a broken eye socket, broken nose, broken leg, broken hand, strained shoulder and 14 concussions. On Sunday, he was riding with a fractured fibula but wouldn't go to the hospital until the rodeo was over.
"In prison, you don't get to make too many good memories," said Hennis, who's serving 40 years for aggravated burglary. "This is the place you can do it."
The nation's financial crisis has forced prison officials across the USA to face deep cuts at their prisons. Money-generating events like the rodeo have become increasingly important to fund inmate programs and activities, Angola Warden Burl Cain said.
The rodeo, which generates up to $450,000 a day in revenue - which includes income made from prisoners selling their handmade crafts - pays for Baptist seminary classes at the prison, funerals for inmates, educational programs and maintenance of the prison's six chapels, he said. The event is also a good incentive to keep inmates orderly throughout the year, Cain said. Only well-behaved prisoners are allowed to ride.
"The rodeo requires inmates to improve and be good and prove to the public that they could be rehabilitated," Cain said. "That's the most important part."
Most of the 5,100 inmates are serving life sentences at Angola, the state's only maximum security prison. Average age of inmates is 41 and average sentence is 85 years, assistant warden Cathy Fontenot said. More prisoners die here each year than are released.
Once known as the "bloodiest prison in America," Angola State Prison sits on 18,000 sprawling acres of farmland, a former slave plantation.
The rodeo began in 1964, an idea realized between inmates and prison employees, and was first opened to the public in 1967, Fontenot said. A 10,000-seat arena was built by inmates in 2000 and has sold out nearly every year.
"We are not the same people we were when we committed that crime 25 years ago," said Edrick Jenkins, 49, who is serving a 60-year sentence for burglary and robbery. "It means a lot to us to get the opportunity to communicate that."
Inmates don't practice and many are climbing onto a bull for the first time, Fontenot said. Paramedics stand at the ready. On Sunday, they carried out several injured inmates from the arena, including one whose head was bleeding after a bull trampled on it.
There have been no deaths at the rodeo the past two decades, though minor injuries are common, Fontenot said. There have also been no escapes during rodeos, she said.
Angola inmates get paid for events they win, including $300 for the person who grabs a wooden poker chip from the horn of a 1,800-pound raging bull in the closing event, called Guts&Glory.
Fasola, the inmate serving life for murder, said he had a good day: no injuries, some pocket money and a chance to bond with other inmates. His take-home pay: $17.50.
"There's nothing like it," he said as he gathered his gear and headed back inside. "We just live rodeo to rodeo."