The top 12 questions about prison rodeos

If you haven’t heard about prison rodeos, you’re not alone. But this dying form of penal competition deserves some attention, so we’ll answer your basic questions about them.

The basics

Q: What is a prison rodeo?

A prison rodeo is what it sounds like—prisoners compete in a rodeo. Usually, there’s a separate facility where the rodeo takes place and the public can attend. Everything else is what you’d expect: real animals, real contests, and real risk (along with some prison-specific quirks, like striped shirts for competing inmates).

Q: Is it all prisoners?

Not necessarily. At the most famous prison rodeo, the Angola Prison Rodeo, professional women rodeo riders come in for barrel racing, and the rodeo clowns are also pros. Usually, however, the rest of the competitors are prisoners.

Q: Does it only happen at resort-style prisons?

No. Angola is a maximum security prison, and participants include people convicted of murder, armed robbery, and other severely punished crimes.

Q: Are the rodeos safe?

They are as safe as any rodeo (which is to say not really).

Q: Are prisoners forced to do it?

At the only current prison rodeo, the Angola Rodeo, sign-up is voluntary for actual rodeo events.

Q: Why do the prisons do it?

Wardens believe prison rodeos are a form of rehabilitation for inmates, not just in the rodeo, but also in associated commercial activities like concession and craft sales. In addition, the most successful rodeos pull in money for the prisons—the Angola Rodeo generates up to $450,000 a day. The money funds reeducation programs, religious programs, and other prison activities.

There are even sponsorships—there’s a reason Coca-Cola imagery is prominent in the posters.

There are critics as well. Their criticisms, combined with a general critique of the prison system and prison labor, contend that prison rodeos are dangerous and exploitative.

Prison rodeos and the history of riding

Q: How many prison rodeos are there today?

The Angola Rodeo is by far the most famous (held in Angola, it’s a little over an hour from Baton Rouge). Oklahoma and Texas used to have rodeos as well, but they stopped in 2009 and 1986, respectively.

Q: When did these start?

Texas’s prison rodeo began in 1931, and Oklahoma’s started in 1940. The Angola Rodeo started in 1965.

Q: Why did Oklahoma and Texas stop?

In Oklahoma, budgetary issues and enrollment drops in the associated prison caused the rodeo to be canceled. Critics also believe the rodeo was cruel to animals and vocally protested it.

In Texas, renovation costs to the rodeo facility proved too steep.

In both states, the door remains open to resurrecting the prison rodeo, but it will probably be difficult to start up again.

Going to the rodeo and learning more

Q: What do people do at the Angola Rodeo?

The prison rodeo includes the main event, concession sales, craft sales, and other activities, all run by inmates.

Q: How do you see the rodeo?

You can get tickets here.

Q: Where can I learn more?

The Angola Rodeo attracts a lot of media attention like this NPR story or Vice’s look at the rodeo.

You can also watch Six Seconds of Freedom, or see a documentary about the Oklahoma prison rodeo, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.

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