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Convict Cowboys

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Convict Cowboys is the first book on the nationÍs first prison rodeo, which ran from 1931 to 1986. At its apogee the Texas Prison Rodeo drew 30,000 spectators on October Sundays. Mitchel P. Roth portrays the Texas Prison Rodeo against a backdrop of Texas history, covering the history of rodeo, the prison system, and convict leasing, as well as important figures in Texas penology including Marshall Lee Simmons, O.B. Ellis, and George J. Beto, and the changing prison demimonde. Over the years the rodeo arena not only boasted death-defying entertainment that would make professional cowboys think twice, but featured a virtual whoÍs who of American popular culture. Readers will be treated to stories about numerous American and Texas folk heroes, including Western film stars ranging from Tom Mix to John Wayne, and music legends such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Through extensive archival research Roth introduces readers to the convict cowboys in both the rodeo arena and behind prison walls, giving voice to a legion of previously forgotten inmate cowboys who risked life and limb for a few dollars and the applause of free-world crowds.

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Chapter 1 - Texas Prisons: A Pattern of Neglect

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Like a horrid nightmare.

—Edward King, 1874

DURING the years of the Texas Prison Rodeo, spectators came not just to watch the rodeo activities but also to observe a prison demimonde that seemed dangerous if not exotic, giving rodeo goers the chance to interact with inmates, though safely separated by a wire mesh fence. But as will be described below, this was just the latest flourish in a legacy of “prison tourism” as old as America's first prisons. The inauguration of the Texas Prison Rodeo in 1931 would introduce a new form of prison tourism that allowed free-world spectators to pay a small fee to vicariously participate in the prison experience, albeit with the expectation of leaving through the gates they had just entered when the tour was over. However, no matter what visitors witnessed at the Texas Prison Rodeos, or for that matter any other prisons, it was mere window dressing, since like all prisons, Huntsville's walls were meant not just to “keep prisoners in,” but to “keep the public out.”1

 

Chapter 2 - A Cowboy's a Man with Guts and a Hoss

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“People don't want to see a rodeo cowboy die, but they want to be there when he does.”

—Rodeo rider Jim Shoulders2

THE cowboy is arguably the most indelible and enduring image of the American West (if not the entire country). He emerged as a Western frontier hero in the nineteenth century and American popular culture has feasted on his image ever since, transforming what one folklorist called “the adventuresome horseman of the frontier into a national symbol of radical individualism.”3 Most authorities have traced the origins of the term “cowboy” back to around 1725. By the American Revolution the term cowboy had attained a more derogatory connotation, when it was used to refer to Tory guerrillas who jingled cowbells in order to lure “patriotic Americans into the brush” as an ambush strategy.4 By 1847, Mirabeau Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, noted in his papers that “Anglo ‘Cow-Boys’ were marauders, thieves who had rounded up cattle between the Nueces and Colorado.”5 And still another Texas writer noted that the border “'cow driver’ was often a robber and at times a murderer.”6

 

Chapter 3 - The Simmons Years (1930–1935)

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“Here it is; it's yours; do the best you can.”

—Texas Prison Board to Lee Simmons, 1930

As God-fearing a town as there was, Huntsville, Texas, in 1930 had churches to spare. What might have seemed like heresy to Sunday churchgoers, for recently minted Texas Prison General Manager Marshall Lee Simmons, the proposition of creating a prison rodeo, the very first of its kind, seemed like an opportunity, a tonic of sorts, for the hard times just beginning, as the country slid further into the Great Depression. Appointed prison General Manager by the Texas Prison Board in 1930, Simmons seemed a well-qualified choice, having been a Texas Prison Board member since 1927. Taking over what he thought was the hardest job in Texas, Simmons was told, “Here it is; it's yours. Do the best you can with it.”1

Simmons took over officially on April 12, 1930, with the stated intentions to look after the health, education, general welfare, and rehabilitation of inmates, preparing them for useful trades on release. During his first year he made some attempts to improve the prison's brutal conditions, such as reducing the use of solitary confinement at the Walls unit. But for the most part, Simmons never really embraced the reformatory mission, labeling prisoner welfare plans as “not practical.”2 Indeed, throughout his reign he allowed “nonprogressive practices such as corporal punishment and commercial agriculture to overshadow progressive prisoners’ welfare and rehabilitation practices in the Texas Prison System.”3 While Simmons may not have had many supporters in the ranks of the state's prison reformers, he remained popular with farm managers for restoring their dominion over their charges. He rarely intervened as farm managers and wardens continued to mete out many of the traditional physical punishments to their prisoners. Likewise, Simmons was prone to reach readily for “the bat,” which he claimed worked like “spurs on an old horse.”4 And if there was any doubt that change came slowly to the prison farms, prisoners still ran the five miles back and forth to the fields, working as long as 15 hours per day during harvest season. As one prison historian put it, Simmons “Thought more of making crops grow and improvements he could show off than he did suppressing convict abuse.5

 

Chapter 4 - The Only Show of Its Kind in the United States (1936–1939)

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“They don't draw the color line in these contests.”

—P.D. Eldred, 1936

BARELY had Dave Nelson stepped into his new role as the Texas Prison System general manager, replacing Lee Simmons, when he succumbed to pneumonia, just two weeks after beginning his new duties. Governor James V. Allred was among the luminaries who paid their last respects to Nelson at his funeral in Orange. The governor acknowledged that Nelson “had barely had time to familiarize himself with the general prison system procedures when he was stricken but had already instituted plans for social rehabilitation of several thousands of inmates through segregation within the various branches of the system.”

A week later, O.J.S. (Jack) Ellingson, formerly the assistant manager of the Texas Prison System, was elevated to the top job, stating that he intended to carry out the policies set out by the Texas Prison Board. However, it did not auger well for future reform efforts when Ellingson admitted he did “not have any ideas other than the carrying out of the Texas Prison Board's policies.”1 His candor could probably be forgiven, since he had yet to familiarize himself with his new position. Since he had been originally appointed by Lee Simmons to assistant manager in 1932, many observers expected he would be influenced by the TPR creator.

 

Chapter 5 - The War Years (1940–1946)

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The War Years (1940–1946)

“He'll be riding in a lot more rodeos—his sentence is 307 years.”

—Rodeo Announcer, 1941

PEARL Harbor was still more than a year away when 100,000 fans attended the four Sunday October TPRs in 1940. In the lead-up to that year's shows several warm-up rodeos were hosted at the Eastham Unit, where an estimated 2,000 inmates and outside visitors took in the informal performances by 135 convict cowboys.1 More than 75 percent of the prison system's 6,500 inmates would later be treated to at least one of the four upcoming shows in Huntsville, brought in from scattered prison farms in “big red cattle trucks sandwiched between armed cars.” This didn't include the convict cowboys and others who were under the impression they could handle a wild bull or horse with a “belly full of bedsprings.” Whether they won or not, each rider was guaranteed three dollars per day in so-called “day money” as they competed for even more prize lucre while proudly garbed in traditional cowboy regalia—ten-gallon hats, cowboy boots, chaps, and whatever personal flourishes they wished to add.

 

Chapter 6 - A Sad State of Affairs (1947–1949)

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“I guess it just takes some men longer to grow up than it does others.”

—O'Neal Browning, c. 1951

FOLLOWING the Second World War, the Texas prison population began to rise again, burgeoning to the point that it was almost impossible to guarantee the minimum standards of health and comfort set down in the MacCormick recommendations. It was doubtful standards would improve until legislative funding was directed at remedying the still appalling conditions on the prison farms. Even Governor Beauford H. Jester admitted that “Investigations may come and investigations may go, but the Texas prison system will be bad until the Legislature gives it more money.”1 In this era conditions at many of the Texas prison farms were at their modern nadir, exemplified by poor sanitation and food, dilapidated dormitories, and brutal discipline. Even as late as 1947 few buildings had screens, allowing in all kinds of legendary Texas pests, including rats, insects and other vermin. Considering the miserable conditions still dominating life in the Texas prison system it was understandable that prisoners looked forward to the October rodeo season each year.

 

Chapter 7 - The West as It Ought to Have Been (1950–1953)

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The West as It Ought to Have Been (1950–1953)

“It looks like these boys have reached their maturity as riders along with the coming of age of the show.”

—Albert Moore, 1950

THE 1950s started out with an almost heretical discussion to hold the TPR in Dallas, the first time it would be held outside of Huntsville. East Texas, from Dallas south (including Huntsville), has consistently tried to co-opt the legacy of the cowboy's West. Visit Dallas in the twenty-first century and one would think the city played an integral role in the historic cattle trade, with so many business references and advertisements tied to its spurious past. This has not been lost on modern critics, with one sagely suggesting that the recent construction of a sculpture depicting a cattle herd traveling through Dallas would have been more realistic if it featured instead a herd of Neiman-Marcus department store bags. When it came to the cattle culture of the nineteenth-century West, Dallas's western neighbor, Fort Worth, played a much more important role, while Dallas had more in common with the Deep South and television's Ewing family than cowboys and cattle. This is not exactly modern revisionism, since even Dallas newspapers in 1950 covered the debate over where the West began, with one headline chiming in “West Begins Here during Prison Rodeo,” but began with the comments that “People from Fort Worth, who claim the West begins in their city are clamoring to come to Dallas to see a rodeo” in the coming week.1

 

Chapter 8 - Outlaw vs. Outlaw (1954–1959)

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“There are fewer and fewer real cowboys among the convicts.”

—Lee Simmons, 1956

DEEP in the shadow of rising juvenile crime rates, the Communist menace, the Korean War, and evangelical fervor sweeping the South, the 1950s witnessed a concerted effort by religious groups to end or change the day of the Sunday TPR. At the annual meeting of the Gonzales Baptist Association in 1952, a resolution was passed and sent to Governor Shivers, the Board of Prisons, and Superintendent of Huntsville State Penitentiary stating: “Be it further resolved: That we as a group of Baptists believing in the holiness and hallowness of the Lord's Day are utterly and definitely opposed to opening of the gates of the State Penitentiary at Huntsville, or any other prison grounds in the State of Texas, on the Lord's Day to admit the thousands of people to be entertained by public patronized amusements or any other form of sports.”1 This letter was far from the end of it.

In June a general contractor from Dallas named D.B. Lewis queried the governor, “I wonder if you would tell me what your attitude is toward the continuance of the Sunday Prison Rodeo which has been conducted for the past several years in Texas?” The letter writer invoked the usual comments about the sanctity of Sundays, but made it more clear who his wrath was directed toward, noting “Such things as the Sunday Prison Rodeo staged by some of our worse [sic] criminals only has a tendency to present such characters to our youth as heroes, when as a matter of fact they are not, [sic] should be stopped.” The contractor finished his screed noting how “Our better institutions of learning have refrained from staging their athletic events on the Lord's Day, and it is sincerely hoped that…our State will decide that there is more honor in keeping things honorable than the thought of a few paltry dollars from a Sunday Rodeo.”2

 

Chapter 9 - The Fund Just Appeared Footloose and Fancy Free (1954–1960)

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—O.B. Ellis, 1960

IN 1954, the Texas Prison Board vowed to spend $100,000 from recent rodeos on educational and recreational benefits for prisoners. The new prison budget was described in some quarters as “unprecedented.” Among the projects on tap from this money were a new educational building and a chapel that “will look like a chapel should.” Other items included remodeling of the local library and auditorium and new facilities for the Vocational Education Department.1 What distinguished the 1954 budget from previous ones was the fact in times past this money was usually devoted to the “enlargement and improvement of the rodeo stadium.”

Plans were made to dedicate the new Chapel of Hope during the 1955 rodeo season on October 9. Prison officials, wary of using the E&R Fund frivolously, noted that “As a matter of policy the Prison Board has restricted the use of these funds to the defraying of the cost of items and services not furnished by legislative appropriation.” In the end, board members justified it as representing their “Christian philosophy,” asserting that this edifice was a “tangible symbol” of their faith and a crucial part of the rehabilitation process.2

 

Chapter 10 - The Texas Prison Rodeo Goes Hollywood (1960–1964)

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The Texas Prison Rodeo Goes Hollywood (1960–1964)

“The state should pay for stuff the rodeo paid for.”

—George Beto, c. 1962

IN the 1950s, most Americans equated Texas with cattle culture and perhaps the last vestiges of the mythic western frontier. But the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 would impact not just the national consciousness, but the way Americans viewed the Lone Star State as well. Indeed, many observers commented that the series of tragic events that unfolded in Dallas symbolized a Texas where other forces were at work, more Deep South than Wild West, a place that the rest of the nation increasingly linked with “bigotry, backwardness and backlash.”1

As the Texas prison system moved into the 1960s, it remained like many of the “warm weather gulags of the South,” overcrowded and still playing catch-up with the modern era. One observer even prosaically suggested that these “plantation prisons” including Angola, Louisiana, Parchman, Mississippi, and the Texas prison system, “remained fixed in a terrible social amber, mostly unchanged since the post-Reconstruction boom years of Southern corrections.”2 In the 1960s, perhaps seen as a move toward distinguishing Texas from other southern agricultural prison systems, the prison “farms” were rechristened prison units, but this did little to change conditions. Prisoners, violent and non-violent alike, continued to languish in dorms out on the prison farm units, where they were sustained with what passed for food and inadequate medical care, while guarded by the ever-present trustees, who remained free to abuse and exploit fellow inmates, all in the name of keeping order.

 

Chapter 11 - That's More Bull Than I'd Like to Ride (1965–1969)

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“Had my ribs, nose and arm broken, but after all a guy has to have a hobby.”

—Lala Markovich, 1965

THE tumult of the 1960s caught up to the Texas prison system in the second half of the decade. “Treatment by race” had been one of the most salient features of the system since its inception. This began to change in 1965 when George J. Beto desegregated individual prison units. Well aware of the logistical problems that would result, Beto went ahead and desegregated the units anyway, paving the way for different races to coexist in the Texas prison system, mirroring the racial coexistence that had characterized the prison rodeo arena since the 1930s.

However, inmates were still housed by race in separate dorms and cell blocks within the prison units and for years did not mix in the dining halls or even in the agricultural hoe squads. So, while inmates of all races might have gone about their daily routines in the same prison units, black, white, and Hispanic inmates did it in their own segregated wings and labored in segregated field forces. It would take another decade for the Texas prison system to actually alter its state-sanctioned system of racial segregation.1

 

Chapter 12 - Huntsville Prison Blues (1970–1979)

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“You must not be afraid to fight for the rodeo when the occasion arises.”

—Dave Price, Rodeo Supervisor, 1970

PRIOR to the 1960s, the American court system allowed prison wardens and related authorities to operate virtually unimpeded by outside interference and oversight. However, a handful of U.S. Supreme Court decisions began to turn the tide towards safeguarding prisoners’ rights. In the wake of these rulings an avalanche of litigation would transform prison conditions in the 1970s. One of the most important decisions was Cooper v. Pate in 1964, which allowed inmates to sue state officials in federal court, setting into motion a series of prisoner lawsuits protesting the often brutal conditions of the nation's prisons and leading to the unprecedented “liberalization” of prisons.”1

The social forces of 1960s radicalization touched most segments of American society, including the convict cowboys of the Texas Prison Rodeo, although many of them might not have noticed straight away. Beginning in this decade of social change, prison reform advocates aggressively used courts to extend the rights of prisoners and improve their lives behind bars as inmates familiarized themselves with their constitutional rights. Among the most valuable tools of the so-called “prison lawyers” were the writ of habeas corpus and the Civil Rights Act.2 The writ-writing inmates of the Texas prison system would use the power of the writ to challenge the status quo of their confinement, utilizing litigation as an alternative to violence.

 

Chapter 13 - The Last Roundup (1980–1986)

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“Some prisoners will miss the chance to be a hero in the ring, if only for a few seconds.”

—Fawn Vrazo, journalist, 1986

IN the 1980s, the Texas Prison System's vaunted control model began unravelling at the seams. As the state's population grew, so too did the prison population. Following its legacy of neglect, the state was still unwilling to spend money required to keep up with expansion.1 These issues were magnified by the pressure brought on the Texas prison system by writ writers beginning in 1972, when a lawsuit charging cruel and unusual punishment was filed by David Ruiz. The lawsuit came to the attention of William W. Justice, judge of the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of Texas, and over the following decade he would preside over a protracted judicial review of the Texas prison system. His findings would force Texas to “drastically alter its prison system. With considerable resistance and pain Texas made the changes dictated by the courts and stepped into the age of modern penology.” Federal court intervention would radically transform TDC and “litigation proved the change agent.”2

 

Epilogue

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“The Texas criminal justice department just doesn't want to be in the rodeo business.”

—Jim Willett, Former Huntsville Prison Warden

IT has been thirty years since the sounds of the rodeo were last heard in the arena next to the Huntsville Walls Unit. Now the arena is gone as well. Virtually anyone associated with the Texas prison system, or who hails from Huntsville for that matter, has probably been asked on more than one occasion about whether the Texas Prison Rodeo still exists. After responding “no” to the question, the next query without fail is usually either “when did it end?” or “why did it end?” Although many East Texans look back on family outings at the TPR on October Sundays with a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness, if one were to search the Texas Prison Rodeo blogosphere today these rodeo memories tend to be a more mixed bag. One guy named Dave remembered, “I had a buddy who went to one of the last prison rodeos as an inmate. He said it was awful. They left the unit at 3 in the morning and all they had to eat until they got back to the unit that night was a sandwich and a soda water. They had to sit in the sun from early morning till late afternoon. He said it was not an experience he would like to repeat.” Another spectator who went to one of the last shows remembered that “the arena seemed old, but it was outdoors, out in the country, and felt like what a rodeo should be like…. I remember a bunch of inmates dressed in stripes running around the arena chasing something. I forget what. Overall it seemed a more raw and rough experience”1 compared to the annual Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show.

 

Appendix I - Texas Prison Rodeo Timeline

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Texas Prison Rodeo Timeline

 

Appendix II - Top Hand Winners

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Top Hand Winners

The Top Hand award, the most prestigious of all TPR awards, was presented to the cowboy who earned the most total money by riding in or scoring highest in the major riding events, which included saddle bronc, bareback bronc, and bullriding. The Top Hand received an engraved gold and silver belt buckle acclaiming him Top Hand.

 

 

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