ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — From the shady porches of St. Francisville, the two-lane Route 66 weaves its way west into the rugged Tunica Hills. Also known as the Tunica Trace, the highway cuts its way for 20 miles through a lonely part of the state, a large expanse of rolling hills, shaded ravines and quiet creeks.
At the end of this beautiful highway is one of the state’s most hellish places, and every October, wild men battle wild beasts in one of the wildest shows in the country.
For many of Louisiana’s top two-legged predators, Route 66 is the last taste of freedom and beauty. Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest maximum-security prison — on a parcel of more than 18,000 acres — in the United States.
A BLOODY PAST
Angola once was the nation’s bloodiest prison, and although things have improved dramatically under the direction of Warden Burl Cain, the statistics still paint a scary picture of what kind of world exists beyond its gates.
Eighty-six percent of the more than 5,000 inmates here are violent offenders, and 52 percent of them will die in prison.
Those who arrive at Angola without handcuffs and shackles can explore the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum to get a glimpse into what life on “the Farm” is like.
Exhibits display handmade weapons — shanks, double-bladed swords, machetes and hatchets, even a gun made from a pipe — and document violent escapes.
“Old Sparky,” the electric chair that has killed dozens of men, proudly sits on display along with photos of those who rode its lightening. Though Angola has changed and come to be regarded as a model prison, the museum takes no shame in documenting its violent past.
Angola is a place most of us will never understand and about which we would rather not know too much — perhaps reason enough why the prison lies in such seclusion.
Surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and closed off by the wild Tunica Hills, St. Francisville is the nearest town, 20 miles away. In this void are some of the most beautiful places in Louisiana.
To truly appreciate the seclusion of the area, one has to venture down the side roads of Route 66. Just south of the scenic byway, the 6,000 acres of the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area are filled with bluffs, shaded ravines and plant and animal life more typical of the Ozarks and Appalachians than Louisiana.
The aptly named Solitude Road leads to the remote Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, while Route 969 takes visitors to the wild creeks and waterfalls of the Clark Creek Natural Area.
One can imagine it would be difficult to escape the wilds of Tunica without a vehicle — jagged rocks, deep ravines and steep slopes easily could make traversing the area a difficult task.
The natural boundaries seem to be reason enough why most of those who attempt to escape would rather find another way out. In one escape attempt, two inmates hid inside the tank of an air compressor. In another, inmates commandeered a vehicle and crashed it through the front gates.
FESTIVAL IN A CAGE
With the belief that an idle prisoner is a troublemaker, every able-bodied inmate at Angola is required to work. With schedules like those on the outside, they work “the Farm” under the blazing Louisiana sun for 4 cents to 20 cents an hour.
City men — many who haven’t even had a rural experience — find themselves tilling fields and harvesting crops beneath the watchful eyes of guards on horseback.
It’s hard to appreciate the true rural nature of Angola until you drive through its gates. As visitors take the road to the prison’s rodeo grounds, they see acres of rolling hills, shaded patches of forest, white picket fences, chirping birds, blooming flowers and blue skies.
If it weren’t for the guards pacing the boundaries on four-wheelers and peering through binoculars, one could almost forget it is a prison.
In the middle of the Angola grounds is a massive cage where an entire festival is run by inmates. After a thorough search, I enter the enclosure to find inmates cooking, cleaning, selling souvenirs, playing in bands, doing sound checks and tending to the livestock.
Some are welcoming visitors and mixing with the rest of the crowd as if they were free men working a regular job. Their marked shirts, however, let everyone know these inmates won’t be driving through the gates when the rodeo is over.
Despite their welcoming gestures and the smiles on their faces, I find it a little unnerving to mix and mingle with men who have murdered.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Just inside the rodeo grounds, the adjoining arts and crafts fair has become almost as popular with visitors as the rodeo itself. Talented inmates, many of whom work on their crafts year-round, display their handicrafts and haggle on prices with the public.
Inmates make everything from furniture and curio items to religious plaques and fine leather products, including purses and belts. Those who want their own Angola apparel without a lifelong commitment can buy a shirt or hat.
Warden Cain and rodeo organizers often note a higher meaning in the rodeo — a time for the public to see that not all men locked behind bars are animals. Trustees at the rodeo come in all types, from hard, rugged-looking men covered with tattoos to baby-faced young men who don’t even look old enough to drive.
I meet grandfathers, fathers, sons and uncles, all of whom made a serious mistake at some point in their lives and are paying the price.
LIFE AND LIMB
Some see the rodeo as a brutal gladiator event; others see it as just a dangerous sport, but when inmates risk life and limb for entertainment and money, people show up by the thousands.
Whatever the case, the Angola rodeo has been going on since 1965. It attracts visitors and camera crews from around the world and raises millions of dollars to support the prison.
Just before 2 p.m., we pack the 7,500-seat stadium to capacity. A couple gangs of inmates are roped off with yellow tape and separated from the free world. Twangy country music blasts through the speakers as dozens of horses enter the field and kick up a whirlwind of dust. The wildest show in the South has just begun.
The events run from standard rodeo competitions such as bull-riding, bareback riding and the wild horse race to dangerous events unique to Angola.
Bust Out, an event in which eight inmates are released on their own bulls at the same time, immediately welcomes visitors to the insanity of this prison rodeo as a riot of bulls and men thrash around below.
When the fight between beasts and inmates is over, one man lies perfectly still on his stomach. A medic crew runs to his aid, lifts him on a stretcher, and the show continues.
For all the danger and apparent exploitation, it is easy to see the rodeo is an annual opportunity for these men to feel like humans again. There is always a risk of serious injury, but there is never a shortage of inmates willing to take part in the rodeo.
While the chance of cash prizes entices some, the opportunity to be acknowledged by society is perhaps one of the biggest rewards for inmate participants.
The rodeo provides the only time a convict can do something courageous and be cheered on by free society.
The onlookers in the stadium sit on the edge of their seats for Convict Poker, in which four men with nerves of steel sit at a card table just outside a chute.
The men look at each other as a horn is blown and an angry bull comes trotting out on the field. No one knows where the bull will strike, but the last one sitting in his chair wins the prize.
The audience gasps as rodeo clowns entice the bull to the table. Before we realize it, one man and his chair are thrown 10 feet into the air while the other three men sit still as can be.
The bull trots around and chases the clowns before deciding to focus his attention back on the table. He snarls, kicks up dirt and charges toward the three remaining men like a freight train. The bull’s head lifts up the table, chairs and two of the men and destroys everything except the one lucky inmate who has not budged an inch.
In an event where the display of bravery and courage are themselves prizes, it is sometimes better to leave on a stretcher than to back down from the beast.
As the last event comes around, everything becomes quiet. Guts and Glory, an event even promoters describe as “pure insanity,” is simple: One man must grab a wooden chip tied between the horns of a raging 2,000-pound bull.
More than a dozen men run out onto the field and scatter as the chute opens and the beast is released. It charges the men one by one, chasing them up the fences and across the field. Others creep up to distract the bull while one man tries to grab the chip.
A common tactic is for an inmate to get the bull to charge him, attempt to grab it, then hope he lives to collect the prize money. One by one, the inmates are attacked, and even 250-pound men are thrown into the air like rag dolls.
Rodeo clowns step in to protect the injured. The bull makes one last charge for an older man who has been waiting patiently for the right opportunity. As the bull charges him, the man runs in front of the animal, just inches ahead of its horns. While running for his life, he reaches behind, grabs the chip, then cuts to the side just in the nick of time.
The crowd reacts crazily as the man pounces to his feet, throws his fists into the air and makes a victory run through his posse of inmates. Visitors, inmates and guards alike applaud his courage, and it is his time to bask in glory.
The man who grabbed that chip isn’t an inmate, a nameless number or a convicted murderer that day — he is a hero.
October madness begins tomorrow
The Angola Prison Rodeo is held every Sunday in October — but next year a spring season has been scheduled with competitions April 16 and 17. Gates open at 9 a.m., the rodeo starts at 2 p.m., and the craft fair closes at 5 p.m. Advance tickets ($10) are strongly recommended and can be purchased by calling 225/655-2030.
Angola is about a three-hour drive from New Orleans. From New Orleans, take Interstate 10 to Baton Rouge, then take Exit 155-B toward the business district. Take Route 61 (Exit B) toward Natchez, then turn left onto Route 66 just past St. Francisville. Route 66 ends at the gates of the prison.
If you plan on heading to the rodeo for Halloween, there couldn’t be a more haunted place to stay than the Myrtles Plantation, 7747 Route 61 (225/635-6277, www.myrtlesplantation.com) in St. Francisville. It has a variety of rooms starting at $115 per night.
Desert Plantation (877/877-1103, www.desertplantation.com) near St. Francisville has four guest suites starting at $125 per night.
Just outside St. Francisville, Butler Greenwood Plantation Bed & Breakfast, 8345 Route 61, (225/635-6312, www.butlergreenwood.com) hosts guests in quaint cottages with fireplaces and full amenities. Rates start at $125.
An excellent selection of food — most prepared by inmate clubs — is available at the rodeo. Items include everything from shrimp po-boys and onion mums to jambalaya and hamburgers.
For some good and quick roadside barbecue, head to Road Side Bar-B-Que, 6129 Route 61 (225/635-9696), just south of St. Francisville.
At the Myrtles Plantation, the OxBow Carriage House Restaurant, 7747 Route 61 (225/635-6276, www.myrtlesplantation.com) offers fine dining in a charming atmosphere. Be sure to call for reservations.
Angola Rodeo: www.angolarodeo.com
Angola Prison Museum: www.angolamuseum.org
St. Francisville: www.stfrancisville.org