Oklahoma corrections department aims to revive state's prison rodeo

Sep. 1—OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma's corrections director is backing a $9.3 million effort to revive the state's prison rodeo, an event that was once among the largest in the nation, drawing thousands of spectators to McAlester every year.

Although rodeo fans have long advocated for the state to re-launch the event that was stopped in 2010 due to dilapidated facilities and budget cuts, this appears to be the first time the Department of Corrections has put money behind the effort.

The agency has set aside $1 million for repairs to the rodeo arena behind the walls of the maximum-security Oklahoma State Penitentiary, but estimates indicate a thorough restoration could cost millions more.

Corrections Director Steven Harpe said he would restart the rodeo tomorrow if he could, but he's optimistic the event could resume in about two years. He predicts the agency could eventually turn a profit off the rodeo if competitions are held throughout the year.

Steven Harpe

"We're just really excited," he said. "We're ready to get this thing kicked off and see Oklahomans come fill the stands and be really entertained and also provide an outlet for our inmates to again feel valuable."

An engineering study estimates the arena needs $9.3 million in foundation work to fix things like the cracking and crumbling concrete bleachers inside the rodeo arena, Harpe said.

He asked lawmakers for that money, but the request didn't get funded in this year's state budget.

Now, he's trying to find other ways for the corrections department to fund the initiative. Harpe said he's still hopeful lawmakers will offer funds during the 2024 legislative session to help cover some of the costs.

Noting the corrections department is saving millions by canceling some private prison contracts, Harpe said the agency has already earmarked $1 million in agency savings for arena repairs.

McAlester officials have said reviving the event that ran nonconsecutively for seven decades since 1940 could be a boon for the city. Gov. Kevin Stitt expressed support for the idea in 2021, according to The McAlester News-Capital.

Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said taxpayer dollars being used to revive the rodeo could be better spent on education programs for inmates or initiatives to improve prison health care.

"That's $1 million that ... could be used for something else that would be much more beneficial," he said.

A pastor, Young said members of his church regularly volunteer at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. On those visits, Young said he's never heard any inmates suggest the Department of Corrections reinstate the rodeo.

Historical photo of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary prison rodeo (Photo provided by the Department of Corrections)

But Harpe said he's heard from prisoners who want the opportunity to work at the rodeo. The corrections department is still working out the details of which inmates would be eligible to participate and what roles they might play, he said.

Volunteers will help work the chutes where animals are penned before being released into the arena. They will also serve as rodeo clowns and could participate in bronc riding and roping events, Harpe said.

Inmates would also have to sign waivers releasing the state from legal liability should anything go wrong, he said.

"It's hard to do time," Harpe said. "It's really hard to do time just sitting around. That's when you start to have a lot of violence. These jobs are a way of reentering them with our communities."

Profits from the rodeo could be used to help fund the corrections department and enable the agency to create new rehabilitation and employment programs, he said.

Prison officials reached out to Professional Bull Riders, which hosts competitions across the country, about partnering on rodeo events.

PBR spokesperson Andrew Giangola said the group has explored the idea of bringing one of its events to the prison rodeo for a television or online streaming exclusive.

"PBR enjoys hosting great events in Oklahoma and is interested in working with Oklahoma officials to bring prison rodeo back to life in the state," Giangola said in an email.

Historical photo from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary prison rodeo (Photo provided by the Department of Corrections)

McAlester Mayor John Browne said the city is "100% supportive" of resuming the rodeo because the event draws tourists from across the state and country.

"It would be a fantastic thing if we can make it happen," Browne said. "In the past, it was a tremendous thing for the city of McAlester."

The city may also be able to cover some of the repair costs using local tourism funds, Browne said. State officials have not directly asked the city to chip in, "but the implication is there," he said.

At least half a dozen other states had prison rodeos, but only the one at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola remains active.

Emily Shelton, the founder of a group that aims to foster community awareness of the challenges facing inmates and their families, said the corrections department would be better off spending more money on rehabilitation programs.

Shelton's son is incarcerated at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, and she worries he will be coerced into helping with the rodeo if it's restarted.

Some inmates will support the rodeo simply because it will get them out of their cells, she said. But she expressed concerns about the possible dangers involved.

"They're risking their lives just so the prison can make money," Shelton said.

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