Inside maximum security

Deep inside maximum security, the Angola prison rodeo pits inmate against inmate and raging bulls. It’s the ultimate battle of people with nothing to lose.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Angola prison rodeo, Louisiana

* Photography was not allowed so all images are courtesy of

A maximum security prison in the economically-depressed and socially-repressed part of Louisiana is not the sort of place you should want to end up. But it was exactly where we were heading.

We were going to go past the guards, through the fence and into the world of hardened criminals, into the biggest male maximum security prison in the Unites States.

Why? Well, for a bit of a laugh, if I’m going to be honest.

Each weekend in October, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola puts on a rodeo within its prison grounds. It’s not your ordinary rodeo, though.

In this one all the competitors are prison inmates and the rules of normal society don’t exist.

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Take for instance the event (my favourite) called ‘inmate poker’.

Four prisoners sit at a poker table that’s been placed into the dirt of the bullring. Then, without warning, a bull is released and the last person still sitting wins.

I’d been warned about this event and I expected to see prisoners running around the ground, being chased by a raging bull. What I hadn’t considered was that these guys are tough.

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Some are the toughest of the tough and they’ve all been locked away because they’re considered a danger to society. So to them a bull is not something to fear – they’ve faced much worse in their criminal worlds.

So, you know what they do when the bull is released? They sit there without a flinch and let it smash into them, throwing them up in the air with its horns, kicking with its feet and charging with its bulk.

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There are some aspects of the rodeo that feel like any other. Families come along with their children and they sit in the stands clapping and cheering; there are food and drink stalls surrounding the arena; and there is a sense of friendly competition about the challenges.

Then there are some aspects of the rodeo that feel very different.

Families and children aren’t allowed in one of the stands because it’s fenced off and patrolled by guards so that inmates can sit there and watch…

The food and drink stalls are run by prisoners and you can’t pay them directly because they’re not allowed to handle money…

And although the competition seems friendly there are occasional explosions of anger – and no one likes a large angry prisoner.

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Many of the other events in the rodeo are the standard ones. The final one is not.

In this event, all the competing inmates stand out in the bullring and then the angriest and biggest bull available is released. It has a poker chip stuck to the front of his head, between the horns, and the winner is the prisoner who manages to get the chip in his hand.

This is not a safe game. This is a game where you are trying to get close to the horns of a bull, horns that would kill you if they sliced into your body.

But the men don’t care because there is $500 prize money on offer for the winner.

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What about the prison inmates?

And this is the point where the morals of the event become a bit blurred. The inmates volunteer for the rodeo and it’s apparently quite a source of pride to be chosen to compete and to then do well in the events.

But they’re not given any proper training on how to handle the wild animals that charge towards them.

They are basically put into life-threatening situations in the name of entertainment, and they accept the conditions because they have little to lose, locked up for the rest of their lives, and the idea of a few hundred dollars makes the risks seem worthwhile.

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angola rodeo, louisiana state penitentiary, louisiana, rodeo, prison rodeo

Meanwhile, the prison itself reportedly earns almost half a million dollars for each day that the rodeo is on. That money comes from admission tickets, food and drink and profit from the furniture and crafts that prisoners sell in the market just outside the rodeo arena.

I said at the beginning of this story that we went for a bit of a laugh and that was definitely the initial attitude. But after watching the event, I actually think it was a little sad.

The ten thousand spectators cheer and laugh, they eat hamburgers, they drink soda and, most importantly, they go home to their families at the end of the show.

The prisoners risk their lives and then go back to their cold and lonely cell. They presumably deserve to be in prison but you can’t help wonder whether they’re being exploited by their guardians for the sake of a profit.

I have to admit, though, I did laugh. It was an amazing experience.

21 thoughts on “Inside maximum security”

  1. First of all, I don’t know how the heck more people haven’t commented on this article, because seriously. What an awesome story!

    I live in the USA and I didn’t even know this was going on, so thanks for writing about this, Turtle. I had no idea that inmates did anything like this. I reminds me a lot of the old violent Roman games…. I can’t believe the prison makes a half million per rodeo. I guess that’s one way to subsidize prison cost!

    Also I wanted to say thanks again for submitting to the Traveler’s Show & Tell blog carnival. (Don’t tell the other submitters but I liked this article the most.) Anyway, the latest edition which was published today.

    Thanks again and looking forward to your submissions next time!

    • I bet you tell everyone that you like their article best! 🙂
      You’re exactly right about the Roman games – it felt just like that! It’s amazing what you find when you drive around the US!

  2. I imagine it’s similar to the mighty realm of the Gladiator. I wonder how many of us would attend a fight to the death? I reckon a modern day fight to the death (human or animal) would fill a stadium…

    A sad, yet real, indictment of the non-evolution of humanity.

    We are doomed.

  3. This is some crazy sh*#t! I can imagine you would have felt some mixed emotions watching this, and you conveyed the dilemma well.
    Thanks for sharing this absurdly interesting event with the world.

  4. What I’d like to see is if these hard core cons are so so bad then if they do a good job for the community as such give the good offenders a marijuana joint for the good prospects. This would increase the prison moral something fierce if they do something good then they get there just REWARDS. Alright then now we have good prisoners that’ll do what you want for what they want. Its a win win situation all over. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back too. See its easy for convicts that’ll never get if you give them some incentives then you’ve got some allies to then huh? Its better to have allies then enemies when the sh@t hits the fan huh?.

  5. I know marijuana might seem bad to some but its an incentive to get the prisoners to do what you want and they get what they want too. It might seem awful to some but Marijuana is an easy way to win over a prison crowd. You help me then I help you out too. You guys do this for me and I’ll give you folks that (Marijuana). It might be a small price to pay for keeping a prison majority happy. And hey these guys are lifers they don’t wanna do nothing for nobody but if you give them a reward for a job well done then you can keep these offenders happy and content. Because most of these guys are gonna be executed anyway so why not get some worth outta these guys before they die. Hey they win and you win too

  6. I attend this event many times. I enjoy it. The rodeo is no different then the rodeos put on all over the United States other then they are inmates. Non incarcerated cowboys ride bulls and play bull poker and all these events butting there lives in danger at every rodeo so it is not the guards just exploiting the inmates. The inmates never seem to be unhappy about being in or at the event. This prison is very different from others the inmates work the farm and take care of the animals. The inmates train the horses and care for all the animals needs so in a way they are showing what they have done and proud many people come to see there skills pay off.

    • I’m not convinced it is the same, Angel, from what I’ve read about the event and what I saw myself. The inmates don’t appear to have the same training and chance to practice. They don’t have as much to lose. Some of them may be good rodeo riders but others are just doing it for the chance to make some money, even if it means they’re putting their lives in danger. That element is exploitation in my view.

      • First off, let me say, the blog is amazing. You are a great writer and i truly enjoy your perspectives from around the world!

        I guess this article was written prior to more recent media attention on mass incarceration in the US. I am disgusted to know this exists, but not really surprised. We (I’m American) are totally backwards and barbaric in these ways of treating our fellow humans. To the people who think these men might as well risk their lives, they have nothing to live for: how sick and sad. Also, as you mention Michael, they are not trained and believe me, they will not receive any necessary medical care if injured. I speak from experience having had a family member incarcerated and having to plead for basic medical attention at times. Meanwhile, yes, the institution rakes in money (everything produced for prisons/forced on prisoners and their families to buy is traded on the stock exchange for heaven’s sake!) This is not just a little game to subsidize a public institution; this is big profits off of human lives. Also, let’s not forget, while some of these men may deserve to be incarcerated, there are others especially in the south serving life sentences for possession of marijuana.

        I am so disgraced by my country and all those who don’t see the problem with dynamics like this.

        Thank you for writing about this, Michael.

  7. Wow! I live right outside of Louisiana and never knew this. Not that i’d partake in such anyway…. This upsets my core, how disconnected humanity is. Sitting around shoveling burgers and soda done their throat without the least bit of empathy. So pathetic how easily distracted humans can be. Wake-up!!!!

  8. Here in Australia the great nation of USA is seen as a perverse, vulgar freak show. We use the example of USA as everything evil and wrong when morality is no existent.
    That such an event could ever be considered a “family outing” – well let’s just say is it any surprise your great nation is the butt of many a crass joke behind your back. Personally I think I would rather pay a visit to hell itself before I ever set foot on USA soil ( please do take note: you are citizens of USA – not America as this would be an insult to Canadians and all those amazing nations south of your sad pathetic wall

  9. This is absolutely disgusting. The prison is profiting off the literal pain of their inmates. You went to watch them for FUN. I really hope you’ve grown since writing this.

  10. This is a disgrace to the human race; to society; to God’s creation. The prison system is modern day slavery; and the government and those in higher places are behind the money train of it all. I was ignorant to this being a thing, until I watched the tv series
    “ Your Honor”, and I decided to research the matter on my own and discovered it really being a thing. This tv show exploits more than just what goes on in prisons, but what goes on in the USA justice system.

    • Calling the prison system “slavery” is an insult to slaves. Utterly absurd. You can make a case against for-profit prisons and other issues without resorting to such dramatic language.

  11. It’s comical to read the bleeding hearts here wailing about these dear “exploited” prisoners in. This rodeo. It’s like nobody even realizes that these prisoners are not forced to participate. They want to participate. They want the rewards, the prizes, the thrill. The feeling of accomplishment, and the responsibility of caretaking the animals. Many of them also sell their own crafts at the rodeo. And y’all would deny them this bc you care about them so much.


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