- Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo by Mitchel P. Roth
For more than half a century, beginning in 1931, the Texas Prison System hosted the “wildest show behind prison bars” (150) near its headquarters at the Walls Unit at Huntsville. In this nicely written, thoroughly researched, sometimes humorous, and yet serious account augmented with rare photographs, Mitchel Roth relates the story of the Texas Prison Rodeo and the incarcerated felons who contributed to the event’s success. Initially established to “provide good wholesome entertainment while raising money for prison education, recreation, and medical programs” (49), the rodeo also enhanced the prison’s public image and offered a diversion from the unpleasant activities that typified the daily lives of most state prisoners.
While some of the convict competitors, especially during the show’s early years, were experienced rodeo professionals or ranch cowboys, most were amateurs who auditioned at the various prison farm units where they lived and labored. Prison employees transported performers as well as other inmates from these scattered properties to a specially built arena where they joined “free world” spectators each Sunday in October. Rodeo revenue funded construction of a chapel, supported educational programs, and purchased television sets and athletic equipment as well as eyeglasses, dentures, hearing aids, and artificial limbs for the inmate population.
Roth complements his entertaining narrative with a penetrating analysis that uncovers the paradox of a repressive and brutal penal regime coexisting with an extravaganza promoting inmate rehabilitation. As was the case with “many of the warm weather gulags of the South” (230), the state government refused to fund the prison system adequately and instead expected the institution to sustain itself primarily through the tortured labor of its wards. Inmates, however, eagerly anticipated the annual rodeo and welcomed the opportunity to observe dignitaries and celebrities such as John Wayne, Fess Parker, Dizzy Dean, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, James Arness, Dan Blocker, Steve McQueen, and Anita Bryant who visited and entertained at the show over the years.
Cognizant that the rodeo flourished during the South’s Jim Crow [End Page 533] era, the author, referencing favorable comments from Ebony magazine, praises the largely desegregated event as “a high point in the prison system” (231). Participants and visitors reflected racial and ethnic diversity, although for many years black and white inmates sat in separate sections of the arena; civilian spectators were likewise racially segregated. Female prisoners also attended and provided musical entertainment during much of the rodeo’s existence, although they did not participate in competitive events until 1972.
Competitors engaged in standard rodeo contests such as bronco and bull riding, calf-roping, bull-dogging, and barrel racing, but, according to Roth, it was the more atypical events that evoked the greatest level of audience enthusiasm. Undoubtedly the most popular of these was “Hard Money,” where a multitude of red-shirted male convicts simultaneously entered the arena to retrieve a cash-filled Bull Durham tobacco bag from between a bull’s horns. Other distinctive events included such activities as chariot races, wild cow milking, calf scrambles, wild horse races, and greased pig sacking.
During the tumultuous 1980s, the prison system experienced a significant transformation resulting in large measure from the famous Ruiz v. Estelle litigation, which found that Texas prisons practiced cruel and unusual punishment and ordered sweeping changes in the system. Increasing prisoner violence, heightened security and liability concerns, and expenses related to renovating the outdated arena prompted the Texas Board of Corrections to cancel its long-running rodeo in 1987. Roth’s book, however, preserves the rodeo’s legacy and impressively demonstrates its place in the state’s history.