March 10, 2009
Texas did away with its prison rodeo back in 1986. It wasn’t because Texans drank the PETA punch and had some sort of animal rights epiphany. No, believe it or not, the state of Texas was reacting to budgetary shortages that resulted from a sudden collapse in oil prices in 1986 (yes, this isn’t the first time Texas has been the economy’s prison bitch). In 1986 the rodeo arena in Huntsville needed repair, and the Lege just wasn’t willing to cough up the half-mil needed to fix it. Think about that for a minute. Remember the Frisbee golf course on the city of Austin’s economic stimulus package wish list? That was going to clock in at nearly $900,000 … but … it was going to create four new jobs, thereby taking the same number of perpetually baked trustafarians off the street to man the clubhouse and keep the squirrels from making the beast with two backs in the disc baskets (or “pole holes,” as they’re referred to by their glossy-eyed users). A prison rodeo arena, on the other hand, wouldn’t create any new jobs, because all the employees work for free, unless you count the “I Got Fatally Gored in the Texas Prison Rodeo and All I Got Was This Stupid Bloody T-Shirt” T-shirts the losers received as a consolation prize. Besides, no legislator of sound mind is going to spend money on something that benefits an education and recreation fund for prisoners, no matter how popular or entertaining it is. Thus, Texans, in 1986, were deprived of the brutal spectacle of prison rodeo. Nowadays, if you want to see prisoners tossed around like a rag doll by a 2,000-pound bull, you’ll need to go to either McAlester, Okla., or Angola … not the one in Africa but the one in an even stranger and scarier place: Louisiana. Oklahoma at least has a reasonable claim on rodeo culture: Will Rogers, Gene Autry, Lane Frost, Freckles Brown. Louisiana? Maybe alligator-skin boots? Throwing a Cajun in a rodeo ring without a frog gig, fishing pole, or broken Budweiser longneck to defend himself is cruel sport indeed: fascinating, gory, heartbreaking – similar to feeding Christians to lions – but it ain’t rodeo. On the other hand, Oklahomans’ familiarity with the genus Bovinae makes even hardcore Texans a bit uncomfortable. It’s only natural they would pony up with a prison rodeo of their own … which they did, a scant nine years after Texas started throwing its convicts to the bulls in 1931, Oklahoma followed suit. They’re still at it 68 years later, and to spice things up, they added chicks to the mix a few years ago. Backward as they may seem, at least Okies aren’t sexist when it comes to exploiting their inmates by subjecting them to senseless violence. Is it worth the drive? Maybe not, especially when you can head over to the Paramount on Saturday for the 11am world premiere of Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a documentary about the Oklahoma Prison Rodeo by acclaimed Okie filmmaker Bradley Beesley, whose previous works include Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks and the definitive primer on barehanded sport fishing, Okie Noodling.