Convict Cowboys – A Look at Prison Rodeos

I came across this old program from October 1960 for a Texas Prison Rodeo…  Prison Rodeo?  Was this a thing?  As it turns out, yes – in fact, they were quite popular in the U.S., and some continue to this day.

I came across this old program from October 1960 for a Texas Prison Rodeo…  Prison Rodeo?  Was this a thing?  As it turns out, yes – in fact, they were quite popular in the U.S., and some continue to this day.

In the early decades of the 20th century, many prisons raised money via livestock raised at the correctional facility.  In states such as Texas and Oklahoma, many of the prisoners were well acquainted with training horses and herding cattle – some inmates even had rodeo experience.  So, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine an additional way for the prison to earn funds – by putting on a show for the public.

Thus was born the prison rodeo, which at first seems an odd tradition, but was a popular attraction for decades nonetheless.  Johnny Cash played his first ever concert at The Texas Prison Rodeo in 1956.  In 1975, NASA treated the Soviet cosmonauts to prison rodeo during their stay in the states (for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project; the first US/USSR joint space mission).  A prison rodeo was also featured in the 1980 Urban Cowboy.  So, shame on me for not being aware of this popular pastime!

Let’s have a look through the pages of this 1960 program for the Texas Prison Rodeo and maybe get to know this tradition a little….

Of course, the program begins with a memorial to a trio of Texans “who have gone to their reward during the past year.”


Sunday, October 16, 1960 is “Harman Day”.  Oddly enough, it’s in honor of some sales manager (R. P. Harman) of the Ford Motor Co.  Maybe Ford gave some donations to the rodeo?

Now we meet the corrections officers behind the event.  Don’t they look like a kind and gentle lot?

 

A lot of performances have made the “wildest show on earth” claim, but the Texas Prison Rodeo may be the most deserving of the title.  The show was dangerous as hell, particularly a spectacle called called “The Hard Money Event”.

Forty Inmates with red shirts were turned into the arena with a raging wild bull with a Bull Durham tobacco sack tied between its horns. The object was for some brave inmate to get the sack and take it to the Judge. [Texas Prison Museum – http://www.txprisonmuseum.org/articles/rodeo_history.html]

The Angola Prison Rodeo (in Louisiana) boasted an incredibly dangerous event called “Convict Poker”, wherein, four inmate cowboys sit at a table in the middle of the arena playing a game of poker. A bull is released which proceeds to attack the poker players. The last man remaining seated is the winner.  Presumable the rest are either dead or at death’s door. [source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angola_Prison_Rodeo]

The Texas Prison Rodeo boasted quite the list of celebrity appearances.  Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Ricky Nelson, and other big names showed their support.  You’ll note Bo Diddley made this year’s celeb list.  Indeed, this was by no means a “whites only” event.

Until the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education,  the Texas Prison Rodeo was the only competitive sporting event in the South that wasn’t segregated!  [Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo by Mitchel P. Roth]

According to the February 1953 edition of Ebony magazine: “Contrary to customary practices in the Southland,” one article noted, “the Prison Rodeo is not a segregated competition and usually a fourth of the contestants are Negroes.”

“Build a better boy”- This advertisement from the Southern Steel Company features a kid that creeps me out for some reason.

This section on “Wardens in Action” highlights the products these prisoners produced: cotton farming and manufacturing license plates and brooms.

La Fendrich cigars – “Ranger Size” – “blended, shaped and priced right for easy, mild as the settin’ sun smokin’ enjoyment”.

The prison in Walker County – nicknamed “Walls Unit”, houses the State of Texas execution chamber. It is the most active execution chamber in the United States, with 552 executions since 1982 (as of June 27, 2018). [source]

A look at the non-incarcerated performers

The program proudly announces the initiation of the PIP Program (Point Incentive Program).  PIP allowed prisoners to rack up points for good-behavior which could be used toward an early probation.

The next few pages demonstrate some recent PIP programs including outdoor recreation, Alcoholics Anonymous and music – all of which gave prisoners a chance to accumulate PIP points.

 

“I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”

Rodeo tickets go towards all sorts of good things – and, judging from the illustration – most importantly, spiritual guidance.

“Does that boy of yours think the grass looks greener in other states?” (Who gives a shit about your daughter, who’ll be homemaking in Texas without a doubt).  United Gas helps bring industry to Texas.

Everyone’s favorite brand mascot – Reddy Kilowatt.

The Texas Prison Rodeo had their last performance in 1986, citing falling revenue and fears of injury lawsuits.  The Angora Louisiana rodeo continues to this day.