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April 03, 2009

The Angola Prison Rodeo and Locavore Grub Fest

by Sara Tucker

Now that Alice Waters, Kitchen Gardeners International, Michael Pollen, and other champions of Slow Food finally have a White House vegetable plot, hope is a-springin' up across the land for a full-out victory garden movement. The promoters might want to talk to Burl Cain. The warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary knows quite a lot about vegetables. The 18,000-acre prison has grown most of its own food for decades now, although its reputation is based more on bronco busting and bull riding. "Angola's rodeo has been around for 39 years," reported Newsday in 2004, "but it has grown exponentially since Cain arrived in 1995 and realized it could be a cash cow." The event, held each spring and fall and featuring cowboy convicts, many with more guts than training, draws some 70,000 tourists each year and takes in over $1.5 million. Cain himself invented the two most popular, and bloodiest, events, which go by the catchy names of Convict Poker and Guts and Glory. You can read about them here and here.

Angola is unique among penitentiaries, a huge, maximum-security prison that thrives on (a) publicity and (b) tourists, two commodities that prisons typically shun and vegetable plots could use more of. So far this year, Angola has been covered by the Indypendent, Mother Jones  (twice), and the LA Times' Offbeat Traveler. You'll find write-ups at BootsnAll, Counterpunch, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

When NPR's Kitchen Sisters visited the rodeo last year, what interested them was the grub:

"Dozens of traditional dishes are prepared and sold inside this fertile prison farm," the Sisters informed followers of NPR's Morning Edition. "Nearly all the ingredients are grown on the grounds. The man selling snow cones is in for rape. The man selling pig tails kidnapped his girlfriend. The guy selling the Tornado Potato is in for life." They raved about the "five million pounds of vegetables" that are annually grown in "rich agricultural soil deposited by the Mississippi"; they praised the lakes and ponds that blessed the prison with crawfish and frog legs, as well as the "huge groves of pecans [that] cover the hillsides."

Virginia senator Jim Webb's call for criminal justice reform is a timely reminder that our prisons now house--and feed--some 2.4 million people, an increase of 76 percent in less than a decade. That's a lot of rutabagas. Granted, the senator wasn't thinking about carbon footprints when he called our exploding prison system "a national disgrace," but are greener lockups a bad thing? There's a Washington prison, for instance, that's into beekeeping, composting, organic gardening, and growing moss to restore the rain forest. (Related story here).

It's surprising indeed how much controversy--and interest--a few vegetables can provoke. ("I'm loving the news that the Obamas are planting a vegetable garden," confessed a writer at the Huffington Post, "but I'm perhaps loving even more the compost heap of controversy surrounding Alice Waters' role in making it happen.") Could it be that somebody with a little invention and a big mouth could turn our gargantuan prison system into the biggest breadbasket the world has ever seen?


I don't know whether establishing penitentiary gardens will be cheaper than ordering produce, or what passes for it, from Sysco, and it will probably madden advocates of the Joe Arpaio school of penology (Arpaio used to pride himself on feeding inmates of the Maricopa County Jail with green baloney.) It may also reduce prison violence. After a day of weeding beds of pesticide-free greens and corn, who's got it in him to shank someone?

Arpaio is the sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ, and a YouTube star, famous for putting chain gangs in downtown Phoenix as a warning to would-be criminals. I shudder to think what he would do with the prison tourism concept--but I could be wrong. Can you imagine a conversation between him and Alice Waters about greening the prison system with victory gardens? I personally would love to see recipes from Angola on the Food Network or a giant pumpkin lovingly tended by prison inmates in the fall weigh-in. I may be insane (probably am), but I see potential here for simultaneously tackling a bunch of social ills.

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