For more than forty years non-incarcerated citizens have crossed through the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to participate in a spectacle of discipline. Each individual entering the United States’ largest and most controversial maximum-security prisons colludes in the transformation of the prison into a spectacular tourist attraction. Whether tourists travel to the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair to purchase “authentic” crafts, for the “entertainment” of a rodeo, or to see a prison or “prisoner,” voyeurism is undeniable. During the years I was a participant-observer at the event my own experiences crossed fluidly between researcher and voyeur. “Looking” is the day’s most popular event and I willingly participated. I watched tourists, incarcerated men, and employees, and I watched them watch each other and I watched them watch me. I participated in and observed the staging of an events that understands the role of the tourists as that of a pleasure-seeking traveler in search of souvenirs, concessions, entertainment and a unique experience. The script of the rodeo and crafts fair reads as a narrative intending to distract attention away from the daily experience of incarceration, and, in effect, results in depoliticizing the experience of incarceration. As noted throughout the essay, the short-term gains, primarily for the incarcerated men and their families are undeniable--individual men earn money, the Inmate Welfare Fund gains significant contributions, and men spend the day talking with friends, family and visitors. In the shadow of the short-term gains are the long-term implications of the event. At the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair, the interactions between non-incarcerated and incarcerated persons happen at a great and unacceptable social cost. As a public spectacle, the event joins a long list of reform-designated programs that expand and deepen the penal crisis. Despite the rhetoric of ambitious intentions, the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair prioritizes the short-term financial gains of the men, their families and the prison and the entertainment of tourists over the possibility of long-term change in the philosophy of incarceration in the United States. 

The Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair accomplishes the tasks that Susan Sontag contends are the purpose of all experiences in a capitalist culture: the consumption of “vast amounts of entertainment” to “anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex” (xlvii). The rodeo and crafts fair stages the incarcerated as the “other,” and in doing so reinforces the power inherent in the position of “free” non-incarcerated citizens. Incarcerated bodies are on display for visitors in a way that does not accurately represent the past or present reality of the daily experience of incarceration. Yet, many visitors left the experience believing that they had witnessed a successful model of contemporary prison management, where well-behaved men are rewarded and dangerous men  receive discipline. Take the response of Ashley, who after her visit had an enlightened view of the prison system. When asked what she learned about Angola, she said: “they don’t have it that bad off, if they get to spend time making arts and crafts.” Tom also left the event feeling that Angola might not be such a bad place.  Tom tells me as we walk to our cars: “the best thing is not to be in prison at all. But if one is, Angola appears to be a good one to be in.” For these tourists, the success of the event was convincing them that the largest, and once considered bloodiest, maximum-security prison in the United States is “a good one to be in.”

The success of the spectacle of discipline put on display at the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair is achieved through the erasure of history, which, according to Debord is the “first priority” of the spectacle. With the disappearance of historical knowledge “contemporary events themselves retreat into a fabulous distance, among its unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning” (xlviii). Opening up the prison to the non-incarcerated public provides an unusual level of access. The Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair has the potential to affect the non-incarcerated citizen’s understanding of the prison system. More than 70,000 non-incarcerated citizens travel to Angola each year, but they are entertained, not educated. The possibility for connection or identification between “free” and incarcerated citizens is lost when the prison is situated as a form of entertainment and an opportunity to “gaze” at a notoriously invisible segment of the population.

If the purpose of the Angola Rodeo and Crafts Fair, as warden Burl Cain publicly articulates, is to bring critical attention to the state of the prison system, then it can be argued that allowing currently incarcerated men (and women) to talk with non-incarcerated visitors about life in prison would have the potential to increase the visitor’s knowledge about the prison system. It is through the stories of incarceration that can be told by those living within the system that there is a possibility for another perspective on the prison system to exist in the collective discourse on incarceration, one that many non-incarcerated citizens infrequently hear. Personal stories can open up worlds and experiences that would otherwise be confined to the secrecy of the hidden prisons in our culture. Stories told by those living within the confines of the prison might have the effect of humanizing the experience of incarcerated men and women, which Robert Perkinson cites as the only recourse to “imagine a way out of our current criminal justice imbroglio” which begins with not only insisting that incarceration “become more humane” but that “prisoners be acknowledged as fully human” (xlix). Dehumanizing the men incarcerated at Angola by using them as props for the staging of a performance of discipline and state power does none of the work Perkinson outlines. Simply reframing the language used when advertising the event would go a long way in humanizing the experience. Using words like “convict”, “inmate”, and “prisoner” reduce the individual to a singular subject position that conjures images of a barbaric and violent individual. The language used is a semantic return to the brutality of the prison systems past. 

The Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair works in direct contrast to the reform efforts attempting to humanize the experience of incarceration by seeking identification between incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizens. The Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair only expands the gulf between incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizens and further reinforces the experience of incarceration as “alien” and the currently incarcerated individual as “other.” At the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair tourists never enter the stage of efficacy in the social drama. Tourists are prevented from and not encouraged to understand the prison system or identify with the incarcerated men. While “perfect trans-cultural understanding” will not be achieved at this event, as is the case with any performance, Victor Turner argues that engaging the experiences of another “in their original socio-cultural setting draws the actors into ‘other ways of seeing’” (l). The other way of seeing the prison system that is drawn forth at the Angola Prison Rodeo and Crafts Fair is that of the prison system as a spectacle and site of surveillance. The events at Angola reinforce the stigma attached to the prison system that is all too familiar in the imagination of the tourist.

Taylor suggests that what the performance might give us is information about “our [own] desire for access” and that performance can reveal the “politics of our [own] interpretations” (li). The opportunity to listen, and perhaps relate across differences, is not recognized at the Angola Rodeo and Crafts Fair, because human connection and humanizing the prison population is not the purpose of the event. The Rodeo and Crafts Fair were designed as entertainment, not education. Whether intended or not, the outcome of the event is that non-incarcerated citizens are reassured of the success of the prison system and are absolved of the guilt associated with not acknowledging the complexity of the prison system as an inhumane and unhealthy political institution. A prison system that can exist as a tourist attraction is not the site to challenge the supposed naturalness of the divide between “free” and incarcerated citizens. “Jailhouse Artists” and “Inmate Cowboys” perform on center stage at Angola where the experience of incarceration is commodified, the desire to survey the other is satiated, and the idea of reintegration into the community is rendered impossible.

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