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Is Prison Rodeo a Real Thing?

Rodeo has long been a staple of American culture, particularly in the American West. The exhilarating spectacle of cowboys competing to stay on bucking broncos and bulls for 8 seconds is iconic. But did you know there is a unique type of rodeo that takes place solely within prison walls? Prison rodeo has a fascinating history and culture all its own.

The Origins of Prison Rodeo

Prison rodeo got its start in the early 20th century at several different prisons around the country. The exact origin is debated, but it appears to have arisen independently at different institutions.

One of the earliest prison rodeos took place at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. As early as 1904, inmates participated in informal rodeos at the prison. In 1940, the first “Great Rotten Riding Hood Rodeo” was held at Rawlins.

Another early pioneer of prison rodeo was the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. Their rodeos began in the 1930s as part of their 4th of July and Labor Day celebrations. The “Training Rodeo” was designed to provide entertainment and teach useful skills like animal handling.

The Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana, begun in 1965, is now the longest continuously running prison rodeo. The Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas holds a famous annual rodeo as well.

Why Did Prison Rodeo Become Popular?

Several factors led to prison rodeo emerging and thriving at multiple prisons:

  • Entertainment – In remote areas, the prison rodeo provided excitement and fun for locals and prisoners alike.
  • Economics – The rodeos could generate revenue for the prisons and towns. Angola’s rodeo raises over $1 million annually.
  • Rehabilitation – Prison officials believed teaching prisoners skills like animal training could help reform them.
  • Public Relations – Rodeos presented a positive image of the prisons to outsiders.
  • Tradition – Once started, the annual rodeo events became cherished traditions.
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What Happens at Prison Rodeos?

Prison rodeos feature all the standard rodeo events like bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping, and steer wrestling. But prison versions often have unique rules and events.

Some notable features of prison rodeos:

  • Inmate cowboys – The human competitors are prisoners at the institution. Sometimes guards compete too.
  • Unpredictable animals – Bucking broncs and bulls are generally less trained than usual.
  • Wild variations – Most prison rodeos include special contests like “Convict Poker,” “Guts & Glory,” or “Hard Money.”
  • Added Danger – With unpredictable animals and inmate riders, risks are heightened.
  • Entertainment acts – Halftime shows highlight prisoner talent like prisoner bands.

Here is a summary of common events at prison rodeos:

Bronc RidingRiders attempt to last 8 seconds on the back of an untrained, bucking horse.
Bull RidingThe rodeos iconic event – riders try to stay mounted on a bucking bull.
Bareback RidingSimilar to bronc riding but the rider has no saddle or rein.
Steer WrestlingA cowboy on horseback chases a steer, leaps off and wrestles it down.
Calf RopingCowboy ropes a running calf by horseback then ties 3 legs together.
Convict Poker4 prisoners sit at table while bull is released – last to leave wins.
Guts & GloryInmate tries to snatch prize ribbon from head of live bull.
Hard MoneyInmate reaches into straw filled with $10-$100 bills but gets 10 seconds before bull released.

The Controversy Around Prison Rodeo

While hugely popular at the prisons that hold them, prison rodeos are controversial and criticized by some as exploitative. Key criticisms include:

  • Exploiting inmates for profit – Critics argue the prisoners are unpaid performers, while the prisons earn revenue.
  • Safety concerns – With untamed animals and inmate riders, injuries or deaths occur periodically.
  • Glamorizes prison culture – Critics say rodeos paint an inaccurate portrait of benign prison life.
  • Unqualified riders – Unlike professional rodeo, inmates may compete whether qualified or not.
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Defenders argue the rodeos boost morale, provide desired entertainment, teach useful skills, and help tame unruly prisoners. Prisoners are not required to compete if unwilling. Still, the ethics remain debated.

Angola Prison Rodeo: The Most Famous Prison Rodeo

The Angola Prison Rodeo first held in 1965 is the longest continually running prison rodeo. Angola is Louisiana’s maximum security penitentiary, housing over 6,000 offenders.

The Angola rodeo draws huge crowds every Sunday in October. The 2022 attendance was over 12,000 people. The rodeo is staged in the prison’s arena, with special visitor stands constructed.

Angola’s rodeo features typical events like bull riding but focuses especially on wild variations. Popular Angola events include:

  • Guts & Glory – Inmates compete to snatch a poker chip on a bull’s forehead for prize money.
  • Convict Poker – Bull is released into ring with 4 inmates sitting at card table – last to leave the table wins $500.
  • Wildest Show Behind Bars – Specially selected bucking horse and angry bull compete for which animal can throw inmates fastest.

Proceeds from Angola’s rodeo go to the prison’s recreation fund and the Inmate Welfare Fund to benefit offenders. While controversial, the iconic rodeo is hugely popular in Louisiana.

Is Prison Rodeo Right or Wrong?

Prison rodeo has been praised and condemned ever since its beginnings. Judging its ethics depends on balancing many factors:

Arguments That Prison Rodeo Is Acceptable:

  • Voluntary for inmates – They choose whether to participate.
  • Cultivates skills – Handling animals prepares prisoners for agriculture jobs.
  • Boosts morale – Inmates, staff and public enjoy the event.
  • Raises funds – Proceeds benefit the prison systems and prisoner welfare.
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Arguments Against Prison Rodeo:

  • Safety concerns – Events like Convict Poker jeopardize prisoner safety.
  • Unqualified riders – Unlike pros, inmates aren’t necessarily skilled riders.
  • Exploitation – Inmates serve as unpaid entertainment.
  • Glamorizes prisons – Paints idealized image of prison life.

There are good-faith arguments on both sides. Each side champions important principles like human dignity, justice, and rehabilitation. There are merits to both perspectives.

Perhaps the public should have access to prison rodeos to judge the events and culture for themselves – but attendance should remain voluntary for inmate participants. That balance may help uphold both safety and autonomy.

The Future of Prison Rodeo

Prison rodeo has proven an extremely durable tradition at facilities like Angola, continuing virtually unchanged for decades. So what does its future hold?

Several factors may impact prison rodeo going forward:

  • Declining prison population – As inmate numbers fall due to criminal justice reforms, the rodeo talent pool may shrink.
  • Evolving public attitudes – Changing social values may create greater unease around events like Convict Poker.
  • Greater safety awareness – Prisons may face pressure to curtail the riskiest events.
  • Alternate prison programs – Expanding vocational, educational and therapeutic options may eclipse rodeo.

On the other hand, the deep dedication of rodeo fans suggests that this distinctive sport will retain a loyal following into the future. The rodeo life provides inmates a respite from prison monotony. For audiences, it represents excitement, revelry and the fading traditions of the Wild West.

While its challenges are real, prison rodeo seems poised to persist as a distinctive intersection of entertainment, economics and incarceration unique to U.S. culture. Like professional rodeo, its core elements of grit, guts, adrenaline and showmanship will likely thrill audiences for decades to come.


Prison rodeo is a surprising rodeo subculture that evolved early in the 20th century within American prisons. Part entertainment, economics and experiment in rehabilitation, rodeo served to boost inmate morale and offer thrills. Events like Angola’s notorious Convict Poker pit inmates against angry bulls to delight crowds while earning prisons revenue. But the events have long sparked ethical debates. Still, prison rodeo’s appeal persists, drawing thousands annually to its dangerous events and the allure of the Wild West. Though facing modern pressures, prison rodeo seems set to endure as an intriguing if controversial slice of Americana.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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