Prison rodeo

Prison rodeo

ANGOLA, La. – He walks out into the rodeo ring already in pain; soon his face will be covered in blood. His boots sink slightly into the dirt as he moves to the center of the arena, with the Louisiana sun beating down and the stench of sweat and manure all around him. The public address announcer calls his name, saying he's the best at this event, saying he might one day be the best ever. His name is Marlon Brown. Within these barbed-wire fences, they call him "Tank."

The contest is called "Guts and Glory," and it's the grand finale of the "Wildest Show In The South." An oversized poker chip is tied loosely to the horns of a bull, who is let loose in the ring where 20 or so men await. The goal is simple: take the chip from the bull. The din of the crowd swells as a fence swings open and a 1,500-pound animal emerges into the bright afternoon. There are other contestants here, all hoping for the $500 prize, but Tank is the man everyone is watching. Tank is the man who has won this event 14 times before, the man who strides confidently to the front, locking eyes with the bull and shouting at him. The bull sees him and starts to approach, faster and faster.

This is the moment Marlon Brown has craved all year, the one he dreams about. He wants the $500, he wants win No. 15 (which would move him within just a few of the rodeo record) and he wants to please the fans who have come to watch, though he knows some in the stands – many, even – don't want him to win. There are some, he knows, who will be cheering for the bull.

That's because Marlon Brown has done something that most people could never fathom. Or forgive.

Only a few minutes from now, the rodeo will end and the crowd will leave. Brown and his fellow participants will not. They are here, on these grounds, most likely until they die. They are inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a notorious plot of 18,000 acres so massive that it has its own zip code. These aren't petty offenders, guilty of failing to pay traffic tickets or taxes. The average sentence here is 93 years.

Marlon Brown is a convicted murderer, and a great many of the prisoners in this rodeo have killed someone. The bald man with the clipboard, directing Brown and others to enter and leave the ring, killed his own father. The man with cropped gray hair getting ready to hop on the back of a bucking bronco slit the throat of his roommate. The baby-faced 27-year old about to ride bareback is in for murdering a friend.

Outside the rodeo ring, dozens of murderers are milling about the grounds, selling concessions and homemade souvenirs. Among them is a convict near the entrance of the rodeo complex, operating a carousel. Moms and little kids ride around on painted horses, laughing and squealing while the man controlling the carousel looks on. He's in for manslaughter; he killed an infant.

This is the Angola Prison Rodeo, a semiannual event where convicts host civilians in what amounts to a two-day carnival. For the inmates who have proven themselves – "Trustees," they are called – the weekend is their reward for good behavior. For the civilians, it's an inexpensive day out with the family.

The inmates, dressed in white T-shirts and blue jeans, walk around the grounds free of any obvious supervision, while rodeo fans browse a flea market filled with furniture, leather goods, oil paintings, jewelry – all made by prisoners of Angola. When a parent drops a foiled hot dog on the ground, an inmate rushes to pick it up for him. Sex offenders are not allowed inside the rodeo grounds, and those who have not proven themselves must remain in a fenced-in area on the premises, which, aside from the massive amount of barbed wire, is about the only reminder that this is, well, a prison.

The warden is here, walking around like most of the officers: unarmed. He held an impromptu news conference, and the first question came from a local high school student. She stuttered as she asked him to pick the worst criminal in the prison's history. The warden could have avoided the question. He didn't. One of the inmates, he informed the girl with braces, was sentenced to 1,570 years in prison for rape. He had 120 victims. He is only one of thousands of men of Angola who have punctured the fragile fabric of our society.

It's a wonder how anyone could help but cheer for the bull to gore someone like Marlon Brown. It's a wonder how anyone could even attend this event, where society's worst offenders can win prize money. Every single participant has destroyed at least two families: the victim's and his own. Every single participant costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of his term. There are those at Angola who threaten, brawl, and fight – sometimes using their own feces. And yet this rodeo goes on, more popular by the year.

In this region, tucked in the corner of the Louisiana boot where the shin meets the foot, what started in 1964 as an internal distraction is now a mark-your-calendar happening. Both rodeos this weekend are sold out – 12,000-plus each day – and the event will be even bigger in 2014 when the 50th anniversary is celebrated.

Over that half-century, the rodeo has helped change the very meaning of life in prison.

The Bloodiest Prison in America

Angola's history is long and ugly. It was built on a former plantation in the 1800s, and stories of brutality date back as far as the prison does. In the 1950s, 31 inmates sliced their Achilles' tendons in protest of the working conditions and brutality. That wasn't even the worst of it. Inmates who have been here for decades talk openly about the horrors they've witnessed, including one prisoner beating a man to death with a rock and another inmate nearly decapitating a prisoner by swinging a blade used for cutting crops. Quite a few of the older men roaming around here on an April Saturday say they've seen killing with their own eyes on these grounds: murderers committing murder. Back in the '60s, this place became known as "the bloodiest prison in America." That was the decade the rodeo began.

Yet there's been hardly a hiccup lately. Visitors don't even stare at the prisoners in white as they line up to pay them for Po Boys and fried Coke, which tastes like beignets, served with powdered sugar, whipped cream and a cherry on top. There are no metal detectors, no vehicle searches, no K-9s and no pat-downs; in fact, the security at just about any major sporting event is more intense than what these fans go through to get onto the grounds of this maximum security prison. Over the past several years, the biggest crime problem has been shoplifting: civilians stealing goods from prisoners.

"They get real offended when someone shoplifts from 'em, and that happens, and we laugh at 'em cause that's what you did one time," says Angola's warden, Burl Cain. "So they see how it feels."

To sell, prisoners first have to pay for all their materials. No taxpayer dollars here. Inmates earn the money first by serving as an apprentice on another prisoner's hobby-shop box, and eventually by becoming their own merchant.

Today, Darrell Jenkins is selling a mammoth armoire he carved and built himself. He's asking $1,200.

"I was 17 years old and 5 months when they sent me to Angola," he says. "I was a baby."

He was in ninth grade at the time, a 200-pound defensive end with a shot at a college scholarship and maybe more. His son was 3 months old then; he's 24 now.

"Murder," Darrell Jenkins explains flatly. "I was with a bunch of fellas. Peer pressure." Darrell has been in Angola for more than half his life. "I ain't that kid anymore," he says. "I'm sorry. Very sorry."

Many of the inmates show remorse, some without prompting. Any of these people could have been a relative. Then again, any of them could have killed a relative. The victims have no voice here at Angola. They have no voice anywhere. "I think about him every day," James Benefield says of his victim. "I think about his family."

Another inmate, Bryce Perkins, is only 27. He got here only a few years ago. He knew his victim well. "He was a good guy," Perkins says.

Is that enough? Not hardly. Nothing's enough. Yet at the same time, no good can come of these men wasting away. No good can come of prison riots and slashed tendons. Henry Fisher is 46 years old and 13 years into his sentence for selling drugs. He has a 17-year-old son and all he wants to do is raise a few bucks to send home to him. The rodeo gives him that chance.

"I want to help my kids," he says. "How else could I do that? This day is extremely important. I thank the Lord for Warden Cain."

The Pied Piper of Angola

Burl Cain looks more like a beardless Santa Claus than a prison warden. He's short, with a shock of white hair, a big belly and a sly smile. He insists he didn't want this job. He was warden at a smaller facility and says he was pressured into coming to Angola for what was supposed to be a short tenure. That was almost 20 years ago; he's now the longest-serving warden in Angola's history. Cain is the father figure here – the Pied Piper, in his words – respected by most and worshiped by some, but he too is haunted by a death from long ago.

It was the first execution he ever presided over, just three months after he arrived at Angola. As warden, Cain's job is to give the signal to start the execution by lethal injection, which he did – with a thumbs down, like Julius Caesar did in the Colosseum. Burl watched the man take his last breath, and as he did he felt an outpouring of regret wash over him. He hadn't even said a word to the man.

"When I got over him and he was laying there dead, I said, 'You stupid thing, look what you did. You did like Caesar.' I mean, that's crazy. That was really wrong."

The next time he made sure to visit with the death-row inmate in the moments before the end and ask if there was anything he wanted to say. The prisoner asked if the warden would hold his hand. So Cain did, right until he made the order. Then he felt the man's grip loosen and release.

Perhaps it was that, or Cain's moral compass – something he admits he hasn't always followed – but Angola has thrived because prisoners here have been treated with more humanity under Cain. He's created work programs for them to develop skills – they've learned to fix cars, air conditioners, build duct work – he's outlawed cursing, a ban that includes guards, and he's formulated a caste system that ranks prisoners by how good they are, not how badly they can beat someone up. All of this is meant to generate a sense of hope in a place where, considering 97 percent of them will never leave, there shouldn't be any.

Paul Bergeron has been here so long he forgot his age. "I think I'm 36 – 36 or 37." He says prison has provided him the education that could have saved him from trouble as a teen. "I was young, mad all the time," he says. "I didn't know how to do nothing. Now I work with refrigeration, plumbing, sheet metal. I'm getting my certification in HVAC."

The entire rodeo arena was built by prisoners – it took just 62 days to build and 2,200 yards of concrete – and the rodeo itself costs taxpayers nothing. The inmates run this asylum.

"The Wildest Show in the South" has been so successful that it's become synonymous with Angola itself. It's Christmas Day for the inmates – something to work toward all year long. The rodeo is the carrot at the end of an eternal stick, persuading prisoners to behave even when the event is still months away.

"They're violent when we get 'em," says Cain. "They're angry, they're mad, they're evil and they're mean. Our job is to tame 'em down, and that's one thing this rodeo does. It's something to look forward to. … You get to go if you're good. If you're bad, you live in a cell block."

Anyone can sign up to participate for the rodeo, but not everyone can qualify. To compete, inmates have to have been on good behavior, then have to get medical clearance. Eighty-six qualified for the April show.

Cain admits the rodeo is a risk, but since his arrival he says there hasn't been any serious incidents of violence and not one inmate attempting to escape. "And you know why?" Cain asks. "Because it's theirs, and they're protecting it themselves."

"It keeps trouble down," Bergeron says. "If you keep your rep as clean as possible, it gives you something to look forward to. It makes things go around."

The Wildest Show in the South

The rodeo isn't a joy ride. Inmates don't get any practice, and while some like Marlon Brown are good at dealing with the bull, most are bucked into the air and onto the dirt infield immediately after the gate opens.

"Pinball" is an event where inmates stand inside hula hoops, with the winner being the last to leave his circle – either on his own accord or the bull's. "Convict Poker" starts with five players – four inmates seated around a table and a bull inside a chute. It ends with a yard sale of busted off table legs, broken chairs and inmates scattered around the rodeo floor.

Three ambulances surround the complex, and EMTs are summoned into the ring regularly. On this particular weekend, one inmate is gored and sustains what's thought to be a broken collarbone. Another is rammed and lies motionless for several minutes before being taken off on a spine board and fitted for a neck brace. One fan winces as he takes it all in.

"If they were told they could go home tomorrow," says Gerald Daniels of Durand, Okla., "I don't know if it would be worth it."

It's worth it for Timothy Gay. Thirty-seven, from Shreveport, La., Gay was raised by his dad, who bought him his own horse when he was 8.

"I kicked him and he started running," says Gay, dressed in the black-and-white prison stripes all the rodeo participants must wear. "I was so happy. I never wanted to get off."

Gay grew up and got a job in an oil field. He was 23 when he was arrested for armed robbery.

"I made a stupid move," he says. "It cost me my life."

Hardheaded like most of the young convicts are when they first arrive at Angola – Cain doesn't grant most young inmates Trustee status for this exact reason – Gay has come to learn a more humble way to live since being behind bars. He goes to church, he prays, he tells his nieces and nephew the life they see him living isn't the life they want to live.

His dad came to visit as often as he could. Last May, Gay noticed a different look in his father's eyes.

"Timmy," his dad said, "I love you. Stay safe."

It was the last time Gay saw his father. A short while later, Timmy was summoned from the fields. His father had died. Cancer.

Timmy couldn't go to the funeral and he still can't go to the gravesite. What he could do for his dad was win the All-Around Cowboy – an annual award given to the best rodeo contestant. He needed to ride a bull to win it, which he finally got to do on the last weekend in October on the last bull of the year. "I said a prayer right before – I prayed for me and I prayed for the animal," he says. "And I asked God, I said, 'God, you going to let my dad ride with me?' And at that moment, when we turned out, and that bull was going down that side, it felt like somebody else reached in and grabbed with me. And all I could say after the buzzer was, 'I got it. I got it.' "

"His dad was very important to him," says his aunt, Gladys Washington, who lives in Shreveport. "He was a baby when his mom left. I see a change in him. He really seems to have grown. A lot of times now he says, 'Had I only listened.' "

[Watch: Timothy Gay's story in his own words]

There are other stories like Gay's, stories that leave you thinking the good citizen inside would hardly recognize the criminal outside. One inmate paid for his daughter's college with money earned by selling wares he made at Angola. Another man's daughter needed eye surgery, and his fellow inmates helped him raise thousands for her treatment. One of the most successful programs here is hospice care, where inmates feed and bathe fellow prisoners during their final days. Cain says prison is often the first time some inmates have ever done a good deed for another person, and it awakens them to the power of giving.

"I changed dramatically," Gay says. "It was my way or no way. I see a better way now." These days, Gay dreams of joining a rodeo in the outside world. "I found something I like so much," he says. "I'd go out there and find it and do that."

He probably won't get the chance. He's here for life.

Life Means Life

There's a quiet corner of Angola called Point Lookout, where inmates are buried behind a small wooden fence. There are so many plots that a new cemetery has been opened. Funeral services are led by other inmates, because families sometimes don't come to fetch their loved ones' bodies. The prisoners build caskets for each other and serve as pallbearers. The gravestones are crosses, and none of them have epitaphs. They don't say "Beloved Father" or "Caring Brother." They don't say anything at all. There's a plaque at the entrance of the cemetery with an inscription:

"Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame, only that I was a man."

All these men can do is try to live with dignity, try to find meaning, and try to give a little bit back to fill the immense void they've created. It's sad and uplifting; futile and distinctly human.

That's what Marlon Brown is making his life about now. He believes there's some purpose for him beyond Angola, even if it's just providing a few dollars of rodeo prize money to his son living in Houston. He casts no blame, insisting his parents raised him right and he messed up on his own. He wants so badly to steer Marlon Jr. away from a life of crime. Maybe in the ring, in the mire, he can still make him proud.

His 30 seconds of freedom have come. The bull rushes at Brown and the man is no match: he's trampled underneath. The bull circles around and Brown is back up again, jawing at the animal and taunting him. Again, he's run over. The crowd cheers for a moment and then goes quiet. It happens again, and again. Tank is bleeding now, scraped by the horns and struck by the hooves stepping on his torso. He bounces back up, a fourth time and a fifth, reaching for that chip. Finally another prisoner grabs the prize and waves it for the sold-out crowd to see. The show is over. Marlon Brown has lost. He walks over to the medical area and then, after all the fans have left, he is searched on the way back to his cell.

"I'm fine," he says, "just a little blood."

He won the crowd over today. By the time he was done, caked in muck and sweat, it was clear the people had cheered for the prisoner. The bull is not simply an animal, but a symbol of the past – a wild and dangerous time in a criminal's life that is too large to overcome. All an inmate can do is keep standing up to it, knowing the bull will keep coming and he himself will never be allowed to run away. The victory here is measured not in money or acclaim, but in the knowledge that the fight was waged, and that free people were there to see how hard the man tried to win.

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