Cowboys and Corrections—Makeshift
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A prison in Louisiana hosts an annual rodeo to bring economic opportunities to inmates facing life sentences

— Cowboys and Corrections

09. Navigation Inner Quests

Even at 10 a.m., the Louisiana sun is already hot overhead. But 40-year-old Michael Rhodes is oblivious to the late-April heat as he chats up potential customers for polished chairs and stools he’s built by hand.

“Hey! How you doin’?” he greets one middle-aged man, flashing him a smile of golden grill-capped teeth.

The man points to one of Michael’s wooden bar stools. Rhodes says that’ll be USD 125. The man pauses for a moment, feigns a frown, and asks for a lower price.

After he threatens to walk away, Rhodes lets him have it for 100.

The scene is similar to that of any weekend crafts fair but with one key difference: it sits within the tall, razor-wire fence of the United States’ largest maximum-security penitentiary. Indeed, this crafts fair is part of the now-infamous Angola Prison Rodeo, an event that’s fondly been dubbed “The Wildest Show in the South”. And, like the hundreds of other craftsmen selling their goods here today, Rhodes is a long-term inmate at Angola—in his case, serving an automatic life sentence for second-degree murder.

In the main event, would-be cowboys ride and dodge bulls or compete in wackier fare like “wild cow milking”, which involves chasing down a loose cow and trying to extract milk from her udder while on the run. Injuries are not uncommon. But for many inmates, the festive atmosphere, cheering crowds, and adrenaline rush are a welcome change.

Today, however, Rhodes’s mind is strictly on business. With the rodeo offering a distraction just a few days each year, he has to make the most of his only public opportunity to sell the wares that he’s crafted in the prison’s workshop. His goal is to sell 40 chairs and use the profits to both restock his carpentry materials and make a down payment on a car for his youngest son, who graduates from high school this year. He has already helped buy cars for his two older children using past rodeo earnings.

Inmate Michael Rhodes sits on one of his handcrafted stools

Inmate Michael Rhodes sits on one of his handcrafted stools

The Angola Rodeo is a central part of the prison’s unique approach to rehabilitation and self-improvement. With the event grossing up to USD 5 million each year, the proceeds not only cover all the rodeo’s operating costs, but also help pay for Angola’s extensive vocational training programs, which include classes like generator maintenance, car body work, masonry, and even horticulture.

Though the majority of Angola’s inmates are currently serving life sentences (with little hope for parole), these programs are designed to help individuals navigate a more purposeful life during their decades behind bars. For some, the skills allow them to fill specialty jobs within the prison’s system, such as welding or helping maintain the local Parish police vehicles. For those with limited sentences, having marketable skills and work experience helps improve their chances of gaining financial stability back out on the street.

Continuing to support this type of educational program is one of the biggest benefits of holding the rodeo, says Angola’s warden, Burl Cain.

“Corrections,” he explains, “means correcting deviant behavior. It doesn’t mean lock and feed, torture, torment. If you do that, you’re just gonna’ make ‘em meaner.” The rodeo, he adds, “supports those schools teaching [the inmates] to be welders and carpenters, mechanics, and so forth—and that’s where the real jobs are”. If an inmate is up for parole and has done everything necessary “to rehabilitate and educate himself ”, Cain says the chances are much better for individuals to succeed and avoid lapsing back into criminal behavior once released.

While Angola’s approach to rehabilitation is considered quite progressive, the prison nevertheless continues to face lawsuits and human rights complaints over issues like the use of prolonged solitary confinement and inmate care. And, due to Louisiana’s harsh sentencing laws (which include mandatory life without parole for even second-degree murder), Cain admits that most inmates sent to the prison are unlikely to ever regain their freedom, and many will die there. “This is a lifer prison, and so we bury more people than we release out of the front gates.”

Given that lifelong reality, the prison’s “hobby crafts” program is valued because it allows inmates to gain income and gives them something to work toward, he says.

In addition to the formal vocational programs, Angola has dedicated on-site buildings for craft activities. Here, inmates can apply for a personal workspace, called a hobby shop box, “so long as they remain on good behavior”, explains Francis Abbott, one of the prison’s classification officers. Inmates don’t have to pay for the space, but they do have to purchase their own tools and materials, which they then own.

Abbott says that some inmates get start-up money from friends or family members. But others have to work to save up, either out in the prison fields (where standard rates are four cents an hour), or through assisting other inmates on their own hobby craft projects. When an inmate makes a sale at the rodeo, a portion (about 11 percent) helps cover the program’s maintenance costs like upkeep and electricity.

Inmate Rosell Palmer plugs away at the homemade crafts he hopes to sell

Inmate Rosell Palmer plugs away at the homemade crafts he hopes to sell

Inmates cite a range of different reasons for joining Angola’s unique craft program, from helping to financially support their families back home, to staying busy behind bars or buying their own toiletries, clothes, and treats from the prison canteen.

“You may have heard that prison food is bad?” asks 44-year-old Thomas Roller, grinning. “Well, it’s very bad! And these crafts are so people can buy hamburgers outside the cafeteria.”

More seriously, he says his craft work is “about survival”. At the rodeo, he stands near a collection of glass-topped cases that display over 400 of his handmade belt buckles. Having spent the last 26 years and two months in prison, he has truly honed his craft, building a successful belt-buckle business and even receiving custom orders from other rodeos outside the prison. He specially tailors his designs for the Louisiana market: deer, ducks, and turkeys for hunters, and motifs around Christianity, individual gun ownership, and college football for the general public.

Although Roller received a life sentence without parole, he was only 17 when he committed his crime, which was classified as second-degree murder. So in 2012, when the US Supreme Court ruled mandatory life-without-parole sentences as unconstitutional for juvenile homicide offenders, Roller immediately used his hobby craft earnings to hire a lawyer to pursue his case in court.

A number of his family members have come to visit him at the rodeo today to show their support.

Inmates like Roller and Rhodes, who are considered trustworthy, are free to mingle around the rodeo grounds with the thousands of public visitors. Others must haggle with customers through a chain-link fence, or give their items to other inmates to sell on their behalf.

While some customers visit the crafts area as a quick stop on their way to the main rodeo events (which occur between 2-4 p.m.), others have bought tickets for the crafts fair alone, as it offers particularly good deals on wooden furniture and specialty items.

Kenneth Young, a 40-year-old Angola “lifer”, taught himself how to make stained glass and is selling pieces today. “I wanted to try to introduce something new to the prison,” he says of his niche craft. “So I bought a bunch of books, and a bunch of glass, and basically just taught myself.” He’s proud to have designed windows for both of the prison’s chapels. And while he aims to make enough profit from each rodeo to order more materials and art glass magazines (“for inspiration”), he says the most important thing is that he’s being given the opportunity to pursue something he truly enjoys.

“You know, I’ve often been told if you do something you enjoy, it’s not a job,” Young explains. “And it’s nice that it sells, but I enjoy doin’ it, above all else.”

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