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Ralph Dawson keeps busy as he shows off his high-end leatherwork—wallets, purses, etc.—to potential customers at his booth. He’s smiling, sharing his inspiration. This could be an art show anywhere in the country, but a glance at the stamp on his hand-tooled leatherwork tells another story:

Designed & Handcrafted by:
Ralph Dawson—119581
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Life Without Parole
Since 1986

“Seventeen/eighteen years ago it was a hobby,” Dawson says during a rare break in conversation. “Now I try to make it a business.” His main goal? “To produce something that doesn’t look like it was made in prison.”

Dawson is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola, where roughly three-quarters of the more than 6,000 inmates are serving life without parole. The average sentence for the remaining prisoners is 90.9 years.

Yet every Sunday in October and the third Saturday and Sunday in April the prisoners are allowed to interact with the public during the Angola Prison Rodeo. Dating from 1965, it is the longest-running prison rodeo in the nation. Around 100 inmates compete in everything from bulldogging to barrel racing. But that’s not the whole story. Ten times as many inmates contribute to the arts and crafts show that runs in conjunction with the rodeo.

The rodeo ropes in the spectators, many of whom leave with arts and crafts handmade by Angola’s inmates.

“Some of what’s sold are definitely hobby and crafts,” corrections supervisor Francis Abbott says. “But a lot of it is art. And you’ll see people loading trailers with art. They come for this as much as the rodeo.”

“The rodeo is of great benefit to the offender population,” adds assistant warden Gary Young, who oversees the program. The rodeo funds the prison’s re-entry program, while the art show provides inmates financial reward and a creative outlet. Certainly, too, performing for 11,000 cheering fans or selling a painting or tooled belt can boost self-esteem.

Participants in the arts and crafts show must maintain a good conduct record, Young explains. “The offenders who interact directly with the public are class A and B trustees,” he says. “This means they have been at the facility for at least 10 years and have a good conduct record.” Some medium-custody inmates are allowed to negotiate arts and crafts sales from behind a fence. Maximum-security prisoners are prohibited from participation in both the arts and crafts show and the rodeo.

Like most of the rodeo participants, many of the artists learn as they go. Take John Sheehan, whose leatherwork includes belts, spur straps and tack. “I first started by watching others, then bought a how-to book and just started practicing,” he says. Sheehan gleans his ideas from magazines, catalogs, TV—“whatever you can get.” As he is serving life without parole for second-degree murder, time is not a limiting factor. And art at Angola isn’t limited to the booths. Prisoners refurbished a 1962 carousel that children ride during the rodeo. Inmates also painted murals on the prison’s water tanks.

The rodeo itself is billed as the “Wildest Show in the South,” with events like “Bust Out” (in which six inmates on six bulls break from their chutes simultaneously) and “Guts & Glory” (in which participants try to remove a poker chip tied to the forehead of a feisty Brahma bull).

The arts and crafts show isn’t quite that wild, but it’s just as important for the inmates. “With the art, it’s all about imagination,” explains Howard Ray, also serving life without parole for second-degree murder, who makes bowls and furniture. “I can be so creative here,” echoes Sheehan. “The imagination is the only thing that stops you.” WW