- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

ANGOLA, La. (AP) - They’re often thrown like rag dolls and risk being stepped on or gored by bucking bulls and broncos. But in those few seconds in the spotlight of the Angola Prison Rodeo, the inmates feel like they are part of the world again.

Louisiana’s most violent criminals, many serving life sentences for murder, are the stars of the nation’s longest-running prison rodeo that this year celebrates 50 years.

In a half-century, the event has grown from a small “fun” event for prisoners into a big business at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, with proceeds going into the Louisiana State Penitentiary Inmate Welfare Fund, which helps pay for inmate education and recreational supplies.

Only the prison’s most well-behaved inmates get to participate, said Gary Frank, an award-winning power lifter and former professional football player who serves as the maximum-security prison’s athletic director. He oversees the prison’s intermural sports programs, which include just about every sport and the rodeo.

Those competing in the rodeo have to pass a physical to be deemed strong and healthy enough, and thousands of others work year-round making arts and crafts to sell at the event, he said.

The rodeo is the prison’s most coveted event because it is open to the general public. It’s held on prison grounds in a stadium that can seat 10,000 spectators.

“They sometimes get hurt, but they know the dangers,” Frank said.

The rodeo got its start in 1965 at a small arena built by a handful of inmates and prison personnel, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the rodeo opened to the public. Even then, attendance was limited because there were no stands. Spectators had to sit on apple crates and the hoods of their cars to watch the performances.

The success of the 1967 and 1968 rodeos prompted construction of a 4,500-seat arena, which opened in 1969. As years passed, the rodeo grew in size, adding events and sponsorships, and taking on a more professional feel. The stadium has been expanded, and now as many as 10,000 spectators will file in to watch prisoners perform in traditional rodeo events.

The only rodeo professionals who compete are the women riders brought in for the women’s barrel racing event, said Gary Young, a spokesman for the prison. There are also professional rodeo bullfighters dressed as clowns who distract the animals once the riders are thrown, he said.

Besides the rodeo, Frank said the prison has 18 basketball teams, 18 volleyball teams, 44 softball teams and about a dozen tackle and flag football teams. There’s also an annual tennis tournament.

Sports make the prison a safer place to live and work, he said.

“It keeps them occupied, keeps their minds occupied,” Frank said. “It also gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

The rodeo and sports programs serve as motivational tools for good behavior and obedience, Frank said.

“Everybody has an inner kid in them, and they just want to play,” Frank said. “If they get into a fight, they don’t get to play. It helps take out the nonsense.”