Academic journal article Ethnology

The Angola Prison Rodeo: Inmate Cowboys and Institutional Tourism

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Angola Prison Rodeo: Inmate Cowboys and Institutional Tourism

Article excerpt

This article examines the Angola prison rodeo as a form of tourist performance and ritual. It argues that the rodeo capitalizes on the public's fascination with criminality through the spectacle of animalistic inmate others subdued by a progressive penal system. The essay introduces the notion of institutional tourism in relation to the polities of representation. (Tourism, performance, prison, spectacle, representation)

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Every Sunday in October, thousands of people glut the back roads leading to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to be spectators at the Angola Prison Rodeo. Hailed as "The Wildest Show in the South," the rodeo features untrained inmates competing in events borrowed from professional rodeo and made unique to Angola Prison. The rodeo thrives as a tourist attraction, not by virtue of its location but because it promises unparalleled spectacle. Spectators travel many miles to attend the Angola rodeo and access one of society's most censored private realms. Indeed, the prison is a space that defines itself by its ability to conceal. As a place that both hides offenders from the public eye and restricts inmates from accessing the public, the penitentiary denotes layered meanings of concealment. The United States' collective imagination of prison life implicates associations with the private--hidden contraband, clandestine sexual relations, dark and sinister thoughts. Though few could actually describe an isolation cell, most people can conjure some version of "the hole'--a deep and dark place that stores the worst of humanity. Prisons are the antipublic, institutional replicas of hell itself. It is thus, perhaps, surprising that when the prison is made public, people line up to see.

The spectacle of the Angola Rodeo is yet another example of contemporary popular culture's fascination with criminality, evident by the overwhelming success of television crime shows, entrepreneurial efforts to commodify prison life (Wright 2000), and the expanding industry of penal tourism (Adams 2001; Strange and Kempa 2003). Despite a robust anthropological literature on the local and global dynamics of tourism, penal tourism has received little ethnographic attention. This essay aims to encourage considerations of penal tourism through discussion of the Angola prison rodeo. Drawing from scholarship that understands tourism as ritualized interaction and performance, this article suggests that the Angola rodeo, like many tourist sites, capitalizes on the promise of cultural difference rendered through the display of inmate cowboys participating in a rodeo on prison grounds. It argues that the rodeo serves as a forum for the display of animalistic inmate others who are effectively subdued by a progressive penal system that simultaneously ensures captivity, control, and rehabilitation. The Angola rodeo is treated in this discussion as an officially sponsored tourist ritual that plays on the public's fascination with criminality through the spectacle of "live" inmates against a historical backdrop of deeply ingrained racial and sexual codes, violence, and state authoritarianism.

RITUAL THEATER AND CONTEMPORARY TOURISM

This analysis of the Angola rodeo situates itself within ritual and performance theory with particular interest in how such theory informs tourism in the contemporary world. Dealing primarily with non-Western cultures, Turner (1967, 1969) established the significance and mechanics of the "social drama" of ritual. According to Turner, ritual serves a fundamental role in the creation and transformation of social identities and relationships in all cultures. He argues that ritual involves a process through which individuals leave their normal, profane worlds to enter extraordinary, or sacred, realms of experience. It is through ritual passage into the sacred that individuals enter into a state of liminality, characterized by Turner as a realm where conventional social norms dissolve in the face of anomie, alienation, and angst. …

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