Joe Keene — a 34-year-old Louisiana prisoner — wears a protective Kevlar vest in case he takes a bull’s hoof or horn to the torso, or hits the ground hard. Fastening the buttons to a black-and-white striped shirt, his convict-cowboy uniform, he prays to the soul of his late mother, who passed away nine years ago. A big part of her had already died when he was convicted of murder in 2004, and his prayer is more a plea for mercy from a woman who, trying to keep her son out of jail, testified in court that the bloody khaki shorts police found at the family’s Baton Rouge apartment were hers, and that the blood was hers, too.
A bull in chute number six is huffing and heaving. Arms draped over a rail, Keene takes a look at the animal’s explosive mass of roiling muscle. A white inmate, tall, rangy, and sinewy, Keene tells himself he’s a real rodeo rider, not an animal in a zoo. Some of the spectators in this jammed arena might be here to see him get violently tossed, or worse, but Keene ignores that. When the loudspeaker announces his name and number, and he’s riding that bull, he briefly feels free. For a short, thrilling moment, his jail cell is forgotten. And if he rides well, he earns applause and accolades, and makes a good memory for those endless hours of confinement.
There’s a whole heap of pageantry before Keene gets to ride, though. “It’s going to get wild and western, you can tell!” says a ring announcer on horseback, speaking into his wireless mic. Behind him, caged and corralled animals snort and buck in agreement.
A prisoner with a heaven-sent voice sings “God Bless America.”Later, the audience stands and applauds in honor of the U.S. military as America’s wars are recited. The clapping surges at the mention of Operation Desert Storm and the Iraq War. There are people throughout this arena who fought in these wars, or are the children of those who did.
After “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung, a cowgirl in tight jeans and a snug denim jacket, waving a big American flag, does two laps of the ring on her horse. She’s trailed by a decorated wagon bearing a banner inscribed “Friends of New Orleans Police Department.” Riding up front in the wagon, a “king” and his “queen” wave to thousands of spectators, people who have traveled here from Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi. As the announcer hails the various states, people roar. Louisiana gets the biggest cheer, though, because that’s where we are.
We’re on the 18,000-acre grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, 130 miles northwest of New Orleans. It’s known as Angola Prison, a name nodding to the land’s antebellum history as Angola Plantations, worked by slaves, many born in Africa’s Angola. It’s also called “The Farm” and “Alcatraz of the South,” though that second moniker is dying out. On one weekend every April, and four October weekends, this purpose-built arena hosts the Angola Prison Rodeo.
Ten thousand spectators cheer ten rodeo events, including Bust Out, Joe Keene’s favorite. The name is a winking reference to a prison break. Bust Out features six convict-cowboys on six angry bulls, with the animals sprung from their chutes simultaneously. The last man still atop his bull wins. Since most of the prisoners are untrained, they generally bite the dust as soon as the chute-gate opens. But Keene is a 19-time Bust Out champion. In fact, he won this event the day before. However, on this April Sunday, he doesn’t have his best stuff. He rides well for a few seconds, then hits the ground.