God of the Rodeo
By Daniel Bergner
Crown Publishers, 1998. 297 pgs. Nonfiction.
When journalist Daniel Bergner first visited Angola prison, he was intending to a do a brief magazine article; instead, it turned into a year-long project of meeting with the prisoners, employees, and the warden. Warden Cain had a reputation as being a religious man, determined to help the men find redemption and turn their lives around--even though the majority of them were facing life in prison in a state that didn't offer parole on life sentences. Bergner wanted to know if this was possible and set out to examine the programs--including an annual inmate rodeo, church programs, and literacy programs--as well as the personnel, both to see if the men could change and if the man in charge of it all was as good as he seemed to be. He relates stories of a few specific prisoners, tracing the stories of the crimes that earned them their sentences and their time in the prison.
This gritty and graphic look at prison life is highly detailed and hard to stomach. Bergner absolutely does not gloss over the realities of prison life; the behavior and language are intense, shocking, and disgusting. At the same time, this book gives much to ponder about prison systems, where prisoners are out of sight, out of mind, and whether redemption is possible. If you can block out the more disturbing elements of the book, you find yourself pulling for some of these men--men who committed horrific, violent crimes--and yet, who, through Bergner's tale, are human beings with hopes, dreams and heartaches. This is one of the most intense, disturbing books I've ever read--and I will not ever reread it--but it certainly is thought-provoking.