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Inside Angola: Faith-Based Slavery in a Louisiana Prison

The country's largest maximum security prison features a private golf course, an evangelical Christian warden, and has been compared to a slave plantation.

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“It was slave labor,” Butler says. “They were waited on hand and foot.”

Butler also wrote a profile of the man who started the rodeo, a Texas cowboy named Jack Favor. Framed for murder, he nevertheless fell in line at Angola, helping make the rodeo a profitable venture. In recent years, the money involved has led to charges of corruption. In 2004, a former rodeo producer told the FBI that Cain had forced him to donate to Angola’s chapel fund in order to keep his contract. In 2009, a retired horse trainer pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection to a racket involving Angola’s horses. That year, the rodeo produced $2,463,822 in revenue.

“There has always been something going on up there that shouldn’t,” Butler says.

Cain has long been accused of ethical lapses. He was most publicly unmasked by journalist Daniel Bergner, who was granted rare access to Angola in the 1990s. When Cain tried to extort him, he refused, was barred from the prison, and sued his way back in. Bergner’s reporting sparked a state investigation, which Cain cast as a fight between good and evil. “The Devil’s going to get him,” Cain told the state senate’s judiciary committee.

Bergner also provided glimpses of how some inmates perceived Cain’s embrace of certain elements of Angola’s past, including replacing some tractors and trucks with mule- and horse-drawn wagons. “‘He likes it to look like slavery times,’ the inmates observed.”

‘Army of the Lord’

Warden Cain ambles confidently toward the reporters outside the rodeo arena. Corpulent and affable, with bright white hair, I recall the way one former Angola prisoner described him to me: “a verbal magician.”

“We’re gonna have a big performance today,” Cain tells us. “You’re actually helping us promote it and do our sales, so thank you so much.” Cain describes the rodeo as “a gigantic morale builder” for prisoners and a “deterrent” for their children, adding that it’s ultimately about public safety: “This rodeo prevents victims of violent crime.” I ask Cain about his philosophy of “moral rehabilitation,” whether redemption at Angola is possible only through Jesus. “We don’t care,” he shrugs. “We’re looking for the morality that we find in religion.”

Entering the arena, a banner reads: “DID YOU KNOW: Angola Prison Rodeo Helps Send Offender Missionaries to Other DOC Institutions Throughout Louisiana.”

The crowd is still getting settled when suddenly a long, sonorous trumpet note cuts through the noise. Three white horses gallop gracefully into the arena, carrying riders dressed as angels, in flowing robes, gold sashes, and feathered wings. As a cheer rises from the stands, a fourth rider bursts forth, carrying a flag that announces: “Jesus Is Coming.”

“Behold, for I am coming soon!” a voice booms as a fifth rider charges across the arena, his robes flapping dramatically behind him. “I am the Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last. The beginning and the end.” The verses are from the Book of Revelation, that final battle between good and evil. Triumphant music plays as six more horses run out, adorned with crosses from head to toe, their breast straps reading “Army of the Lord.”

The riders gallop in formation. The crowd goes wild. The rodeo has officially begun.

Up next are the Angola Rough Riders. Dressed in the convict stripes worn by all competitors, they carry a series of flags. An older black inmate carries the Confederate flag. Another holds the flag of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, the Confederate army that represented Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana in the Civil War. “Those are the flags that have flown over Louisiana,” explains a PR official when I ask if the symbolism isn’t a bit . . . fraught. “It’s historical.”

 
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