Dangerous History of Texas Prison Rodeo

Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

For over 55 years, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice hosted the Texas Prison Rodeo in Huntsville, with visitors coming from all over to view the chaos. Dr. Mitchel Roth, professor of criminal justice and author of Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo, shared some of the most interesting facts and stories from the rodeo.

  “It’s like NASCAR, waiting for something bad to happen, probably to somebody.”

Prison rodeos gained a reputation for having dangerous and untraditional events for the convicts to compete against each other. In a regular rodeo, attendees can watch a single rider on a 2,000-pound bull, but in a prison rodeo people would see 10 convicts on 10 bulls at the same time.

One of the most popular events, borrowed from the Oklahoma prison rodeo, was called the “Mad Scramble.” 40 participants wearing red shirts would try to grab a bag of money off a bull’s horns. However, not all the events stuck inside the arena.

            “He would always end in either the cemetery or on top of a Cadillac somewhere.”

In the 1940s, the prison system introduced sky diving to the roster of events. For two years, convicts would try to jump out of an airplane and attempt to land in the middle of the arena.

The event did not have the best success rate, as the jumpers often landed outside of the designated landing zone. Besides the death-defying events, visitors also enjoyed celebrity guests from John Wayne to Dolly Parton.

            “I found out when he did come, he was under the influence, he was drunk and he wasn’t there for a long time.”

According to Roth, John Wayne arrived drunk for his visit to the rodeo and chose to leave without shaking any prisoners’ hands. However, Wayne rejected the $2,000 payment, so the money could stay in the prisoners’ funds.

Another celebrity that graced the prison’s stage, Johnny Cash, performed one of his first prison concerts in Huntsville. However, the true stars of the rodeo were the convicts who decided to participate in the danger.

            “Basically, it was something in their lives they could get applauded for after coming from a life of crime and poverty.”

With little time for training and wild livestock, the participants signed up to compete and hopefully win some money for the prison commissary. The prisoners who did not compete supported the participants by self-policing the events and building equipment like stirrups.

The prison rodeo was also one of the first desegregated sporting events in Texas, with participants competing against each other without being separated based on race.

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