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Could Oklahoma's prison rodeo return soon?

Feb 22, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

McALESTER — Red, white and blue paint on the back side of the state penitentiary’s walls still welcomes passers by to “the only behind the walls rodeo.” However, these days the only people who see the chain-link gate to the rodeo grounds situated between two brick guard towers are prison staff and the occasional visitors to death row immediately next door. After nearly 70 years in existence, the nation’s last remaining prison rodeo, which allowed inmates the opportunity to compete in a variety of events, closed for good in 2010. Now a professional bull riding circuit has taken interest in bringing the tradition back. The same year the rodeo closed, statues of an inmate wearing a black and white striped prison uniform riding a bull went up on either end of town.

By Graham Lee Brewer February 22, 2015

McALESTER — Red, white and blue paint on the back side of the state penitentiary’s walls still welcomes passers by to “the only behind the walls rodeo.” However, these days the only people who see the chain-link gate to the rodeo grounds situated between two brick guard towers are prison staff and the occasional visitors to death row immediately next door.

After nearly 70 years in existence, the nation’s last remaining prison rodeo, which allowed inmates the opportunity to compete in a variety of events, closed for good in 2010. Now a professional bull riding circuit has taken interest in bringing the tradition back.

The same year the rodeo closed, statues of an inmate wearing a black and white striped prison uniform riding a bull went up on either end of town.

“It’s a sad reminder really,” Joe Prichard, owner of Pete’s Place restaurant just a few miles away in Krebs, said of the statues.

Prichard, whose family has owned the restaurant for 90 years, said when the prison rodeo left, so did a lot of revenue in the local economy.

‘Major loss’

“It was a major, major loss,” he said. “No question.”

Citing low staffing at the prison and the need for tens of thousands of dollars in repairs to the stadium, corrections officials ended the long-standing event that pulled in visitors from across the country, much to the dismay of local residents and business owners.

“That has just been a part of history here, and it has been missed tremendously,” said Kathy Wall, manager of tourism for the city of McAlester. “We still get calls from people all over the United States wanting to know when it is and if we’ll get it back.”

Wall and other McAlester officials have been trying to bring the event back ever since it left.

“It has substantially affected our tourism revenue for our city, and that’s why I’m pushing so hard to try and get this back,” she said, noting that a city study showed 89 percent of the revenue generated by the rodeo came from out-of-town visitors.

Will it return?

Wall said a new push to bring back the rodeo is buoyed by interest from Professional Bull Riders Inc., which touts itself as the world’s premier bull riding organization and has events regularly televised on major networks.

She added both state Corrections Department Director Robert Patton and Gov. Mary Fallin’s general counsel, Steve Mullins, also have been in talks with the city of McAlester about reinstating the prison rodeo.

Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said the amount of money needed to repair the arena is simply too great given the department’s budget and little has changed in terms of low staffing levels.

He said, realistically, the rodeo is not going to return any time soon.

Gov. Mary Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said Mullins has been in talks with the city, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“The state has a great relationship with the city of McAlester, and we want to do what we can to assist with tourism and anything else we can,” he said.

Stadium repairs

Wall said McAlester has found parties interested in covering the estimated $100,000 necessary for stadium repairs.

Suitable law enforcement personnel have also been located to help staff the event, should it be reinstated.

“There’s a long road ahead of us to get it back, but the sheriff’s office is on board,” said Rick Wall, head of the reserve unit at the Pittsburg County sheriff’s office.

He said his office has several officers willing to voluntarily staff any future prison rodeos.

J.W. Hart, a Marietta native and former PBR champion bull rider, toured the arena recently, and he said it would be a perfect fit for an annual PBR event.

“I had never been to the prison rodeo,” Hart said, “and going to the arena, the shooting towers and everything, it was really an unbelievable site.”

Inmate events

Hart, who currently does commentary for PBR events, said PBR has been considering holding a large, televised bull riding championship there, which would incorporate inmate events, as well.

“We’d have a bull riders event with the best 35 guys in the world, and at half time we’d have a prisoners event,” he said.

“Money the hard way (where inmates would try to rip money off the tail of a bull) or just a wild horse race, something that’s not too awful dangerous.”

Waiting for approval

He said the only hurdle, besides staffing and repairs to the arena, is getting the state Corrections Department to sign on.

Hart said it would all be worth it to the people of McAlester, who get excited at the very mention of the rodeo’s return.

“The light in their eyes and the smile on their face is worth every nickel that’s going to go into this,” he said.