Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary has become the Alcatraz of the ’90s. Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking and Life Sentences by inmate Wilbert Rideau number among several recent books that suggest Angola is the meanest, baddest patch of hell in our fair land. Encircled by a snake-infested swamp, the maximum-security prison is home to 5000 murderers, rapists, and armed robbers, 80 percent of whom will never leave. It’s not hard to imagine how so much condensed rage might simply burn a mile-deep hole in the ground.
Novelist and journalist Daniel Bergner went to Angola to write about a popular annual rodeo in which inmates bust ribs and arms riding bulls and horses. He also wanted to write about reform-minded warden Burl Cain, whose inmate-improvement programs included classes for death-row prisoners. “I am their daddy,” Cain once said. But Bergner soon discovers another side of the warden—that of a corrupt autocrat who asks the writer for money for the journalist’s access to the prison. When Cain bars Bergner for his failure to pay up, Bergner takes him to court and wins. Bergner intersperses the story of his disillusionment with Cain and his legal battle with an account of several prisoners’ attempts to better themselves through religion, education, and rodeo glory. The rodeo serves as “a rite of grace, of barely perceptible reconciliation between the inmates and society,” Bergner observes.
The buckaroos are typical of the Angola population—Terry Hawkins hacked his boss to death with an ax, Buckkey Lasseigne participated in a gas station murder, and Danny Fabre strangled a woman and then drove a stick through her skull. Bergner gets close to these men, but not so close as to mistake their humanity for an excuse.
God of the Rodeo offers a safe tour of this Dixie Inferno, yet singes our skin enough to remind us that this hell is peopled with sons, brothers, and fathers who long, during their six-second rides on a wild bull, simply to be seen.