16 Chapters
Medium 9781574416527

Chapter 1 - Texas Prisons: A Pattern of Neglect

Mitchel P. Roth University of North Texas Press ePub

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

See All Chapters
Medium 9781574416527

Epilogue

Mitchel P. Roth University of North Texas Press ePub

“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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9781574416527

Chapter 13 - The Last Roundup (1980–1986)

Mitchel P. Roth University of North Texas Press ePub

“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

See All Chapters
Medium 9781574416527

Chapter 12 - Huntsville Prison Blues (1970–1979)

Mitchel P. Roth University of North Texas Press ePub

“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.

See All Chapters
Medium 9781574416527

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

Mitchel P. Roth University of North Texas Press ePub

“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

See All Chapters

See All Chapters