Leading Off

November 17, 2014

PRISON BREAK

The smell of livestock accented the Louisiana air last month, as four men in black-and-white-striped shirts took their seats around a table, outdoors, for a high-stakes game of poker. The winner, though, would not be the player with the best hand or the most convincing bluff. No, it would be the last man to surrender his seat when Freddy Krueger, a raging bull weighing 2,000 pounds, charged the table. Giving new zest to the lyric You gotta know when to walk away/Know when to run, three of the players scattered—not before one got the business end of a horn—while 37-year-old Darrow Baker stayed seated to claim victory. If Baker's choice sounds crazy, well, a life sentence will do funny things to a man's risk-reward calculations.

Convict Poker, as it's known, is just one of the 10 events at the Angola Prison Rodeo, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this fall. The largest maximum security prison in the U.S., Angola sits in the soft and marshy midsection of a state that has the highest rate of incarceration in the nation—a state famously unsparing in its sentencing and famously stingy with its parole. Among Angola's 6,200 inmates, 4,600 are serving life terms. The average sentence is 91.5 years.

The monotony of prison life is broken by the rodeos, which take place over one weekend in April and every Sunday in October. What began as a fun activity among convicts was opened to the public in 1967 and grew to become a major draw. Today the inmate-built arena seats 11,000 and is invariably filled to capacity. Apart from conventional events, the Angola Rodeo features wild-cow milking contests and Guts & Glory, in which prisoners try to grab a red poker chip tied to the forehead of what the emcee calls "the toughest Brahman bull available." This year's rodeos drew a total of 70,000 spectators, with admission at $15. Judging from the license plates in the parking lot, the spectators came from across the country.

If the idea of prisoners entertaining crowds by risking limb, if not life, makes you uneasy, you're not alone. The event has been likened to gladiators in the Colosseum, and characterized by critics as plantation-style entertainment: The majority of inmates are African-American and the majority of the crowd is not. Yet the desire to participate is so great that, year-round, wardens use permission as an incentive to encourage good behavior. (Officials are quick to note that there has never been a rodeo fatality.)

"They're king for a day," is how a warden once explained it. To a man—and they're all men—the inmates speak enthusiastically of the fun, the competition and the diversion that attends the rodeo. If they end up in the medical ward, well, perhaps it was worth it.

The rodeo is a source of economic opportunity, akin to a state fair inside concertina wire. Convict-run concession booths sell regional delicacies such as frogs' legs, crackling (roasted pig skin) and, for $4, fried Coke. Inmates set up booths around the arena, selling their wares—abstract paintings, leather-bound Bibles, belt buckles, Saints and LSU coffee mugs. They can keep 80% of the proceeds, a significant supplement to the standard wage of two to 20 cents an hour paid to inmates for other jobs. The admissions fees go toward rehabilitation programs and to help prepare inmates to reenter society. The proceeds from 2014 are expected to exceed $2.5 million.

Let the record reflect: The winner of the 2014 All-Around Cowboy award at the Angola Rodeo was Gary Lindsey, 46, who's serving a 40-year sentence for armed robbery. He wrestled steer to the ground. He rode a horse bareback. He stayed atop a thrashing bull for eight seconds.

And for those few seconds, he was free.

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM WIDMER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDConvict Poker remains a highlight of the Angola Prison Rodeo, which, in its 50th year, continues to grow, drawing a total crowd of 70,000 in 2014. FOUR PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM WIDMER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDAfter an opening ceremony that includes a prayer circle (above), prisoners such as Francis Loncar (right) go all out in quest of the title belt. FOUR PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM WIDMER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDInmates try to snatch a poker chit off a bull in Guts & Glory—Chris Gage (top left) has won three times—while others sell their wares from behind a fence.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)