A solid work of reportage on life inside one of America's toughest prisons. Angola, La., is this nation's version of Devil's Island, a swamp-bound expanse of territory larger than Manhattan. The place, writes novelist Bergner (Moments of Favor, 1991), is also strangely beautiful, a tropical wonderland of magnolia, oak, cypress, and crab apple--hardly the common version of hell. Yet hell it is. Bergner writes of men who, for entertainment and revenge, fling feces at one another, cut each other with homemade knives, kill, and maim. Considered the toughest prison in a state with ""a good claim to the toughest sentencing laws in the nation,"" Angola was a place where many entered and few left, where guards behaved with studied brutality. The Supreme Court, Bergner writes, found that Angola's wardens so regularly violated the constitutional rights of the inmates that it ordered federal oversight of the prison, including the replacement of the old wardens with a new breed more attuned to modern theories of penology. One of those newcomers, Burl Cain, especially fascinates Bergner. A no-nonsense lawgiver, Cain believes in redemption and rehabilitation, and one of his innovations was the creation of a prison rodeo that draws onlookers from miles around to see the residents of Angola compete against sharp-homed bulls for a small cash purse. This rodeo provides Bergner with a useful framing device for his narrative, but it is also an object lesson in empty symbolism--for the dangerous rodeo offers small rewards and costs its participants dearly. We owe the prisoners little, Bergner writes, for in the main they have brought their fates on themselves. Yet even he argues that we owe them more than ""a perverse rodeo as a vehicle for self-improvement and a way to make themselves known."" Although no classic of criminology or of muckraking journalism, Bergner's book is, all the same, an interesting glimpse at the underside of American life.