The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo
By Mitchel P. Roth
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2016 Mitchel P. Roth
All rights reserved.
Texas Prisons: A Pattern of Neglect
"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."
According to anthropologist Melissa Schrift, who has studied prison rodeos, spectators traveled whatever distance it took to "access one of society's most censored realms." While she was commenting on the extant Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana, her findings held true for the Texas Prison Rodeo as well. Schrift probably explained the draw of the prison milieu best, writing, "The U.S. collective imagination of prison life implicates associations with the private — hidden contraband, clandestine sexual relations, dark and sinister thoughts." Prison tourists thought that if they looked hard enough they might find some portal into this closed-off world to satiate their fascination about what transpired inside the cell blocks. What surprised the Angola researcher was that "Prisons are anti-public, institutional replicas of hell itself"; thus it was hard to explain why "when the prison is made public, people line up to see it."
The fascination with prisons that made the Texas Prison Rodeo so successful dated back to the beginnings of the American prison system. As early as 1839, Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary was attracting 4,000 admiring tourists per year, while New York State's Auburn Prison hosted more than 7,000 a year, this despite a substantial entry fee of 25 cents (which would translate to the price of a first-run movie ticket in the twenty-first century). Over the next century some correctional institutions saw prison tours as a source of revenue in a time when prisons were expected to be self-supporting and could expect little support from state legislatures.
In the opening years of the twentieth century, even the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary was visited by close to 3,000 per day, with permanent passes allowing citizens to roam about any day they wanted. And when a new warden arrived at New York's Sing Sing Prison in 1919, he found the yard "as crowded with visitors as with prisoners. All mingled freely." The warden added proudly that Sing Sing was considered "more famous perhaps than the Statue of Liberty."
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At the end of the 1920s, in the decade prior to the inauguration of America's first prison rodeo, "Throngs of curious visitors" were still trooping through Huntsville Penitentiary's "ancient prison plant here at the heels of guides, paying 25 cents each to see how the caged convicts of Texas live behind the grim gray walls." According to one reporter who made the prison trek,
There isn't another prison in the country like this old worn out bastille; at least none of the other seventeen visited by the Texas prison centralization commission on a recent nationwide tour ... here at Huntsville I saw many men unoccupied, but I don't remember seeing one with a mop or scrub brush. ... As for discipline, none of the outward evidences of it that stand out in other prisons were observed here. There was not the rigid, businesslike, military air that makes them so efficient. Here large numbers of convicts were seen lolling about the grounds and cell houses — neither locked up nor at work. Colonel Mead explained that they were mostly "knockouts," men not considered in condition to work.
However, one would find a much more brutal incarnation of the prison system if venturing out to the prison farm units that dotted southeast Texas, where physical punishments remained the rule, rather than the exception.
During the TPR years of the late 1930s every visitor to the Walls was expected to pay 25 cents into the "little Commissary Fund." One reporter noted that in August 1937 alone more than 4,000 visitors trooped through the fabled prison including 917 in one day. On their tour "Visitors and inmates can buy at the Little Commissary Store within the series of gates at the main entrance, cold drinks, candy and tobacco."
Huntsville Prison proved to be a must-see for many tourists, not including the October rodeos, which began in 1931. Even the prison newspaper acknowledged that "Huntsville may not be the crossroads of the world ... but 30,000 free world visitors annually are attracted to the main unit of the Texas prison system." Several employees conducted the tours, including a J.F. Dennis. By the 1940s he had been at it for more than a decade but admitted that he had "not been able to discover the secret of the magnetic power which draws so many interested people to the institution," but from his queries had found that the "reasons [were] as varied as visitors themselves."
According to one unnamed reporter for the Texas prison system newspaper, the Echo in the 1940s,
An average of 200 visitors a day file past the all-seeing electric eye set up in the outer entrance which, incidentally, actually sees nothing but nevertheless tells all. They come from every state in the Union and from almost every nation on earth — Eskimos, and Zulu chieftains excepted. Daily they visit the cell blocks, the electric chair, are impressed by the light and airy dining room and kitchens, surprised at the seating capacity of the auditorium and the size of the library, and completely at a loss for anything other than complimentary words after viewing the prison's up to the minute hospital.
If anyone doubted the popularity of this tour all the guide had to do was recite the names on the prison register from Italy, South Africa, England, France, Germany, and other European countries and every state except Rhode Island. Visiting days lasted from 9 a.m. till 4 in the afternoon and the 1940s saw one of its largest visiting days, hosting over 1,100 visitors.
Traditionally when visitors toured prisons, the inmates knew that staring or speaking with so-called "free worlders" was strictly prohibited, a prohibition that also applied to them addressing guards and other employees "unnecessarily." However, the Huntsville experience ran counter to this notion, as onlookers were surprised to find inmates "entirely informal, chatting, whistling and singing among themselves, freely sizing up visitors, and occasionally one would speak amiably to the guide." Likewise, during the Texas Prison Rodeos, every effort was directed toward separating inmates and convict cowboys from the free-world spectators in the stands. Yet, over the course of the rodeo years, numerous photos testify to the inmate cowboys interacting with young fans through the barbed wire that separated the convicts from the spectators.
The patter between inmate and visitor often shattered the expectations of many first-time Huntsville prison observers, as did discovering guards appareled in non-custodial regalia, typically decked out in "a shirt, trousers and hat of whatever pattern best suits his fancy and a six shooter." Likewise, prisoners were adorned in a variety of outfits, with "some lacking full regulation uniforms altogether, and with unruly and dangerous inmates decked in white ducking and stripes," but instead "adorned themselves with citizen shirts, hats and neckties — never [seen] in another prison."
However, while many penal institutions went out of their way to entertain curious spectators, as the Texas prisons would during the prison rodeos, others did not. Michigan's largest prison, for example, eventually excluded visitors under sixteen so they wouldn't see "things that were not good for them." That said, it continued to sell tickets to guests wanting to watch "big variety shows" inside Michigan's penitentiary walls, leading at one time or another to a "constant stream of athletes, politicians, high school students, members of fraternities and sororities, circus performers, actors, preachers, professors, and do-gooders of all descriptions [flowing] through the gates." In contrast to the Michigan prison prohibition against under-16-year-old visitors, families had no problem bringing their young children to the TPR shows, even with the knowledge that thousands of prisoners would be in attendance as well, although segregated in a separate section of the grandstands.
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Opening in Huntsville in 1849 with 240 cells, critics regarded what would become known as "the Walls" because of its high red brick enclosure, as "vastly overbuilt." During its first decade it accepted only 412 prisoners, most sentenced to two-to-five-year terms for cattle rustling, thievery, and various assault charges. Over the next 150 years Huntsville's Walls unit became one of America's most storied prisons; through its doors passed famous gunfighters (John Wesley Hardin), Indian chiefs (Satanta), gangsters (Ray Hamilton), and even rock stars (David Crosby). But of the hundreds of convict cowboys who competed in the yearly Texas Prison Rodeos, few are remembered, or for that matter left much more than a trace of their existence beyond their prison rap sheets.
Similar to other small towns that housed major prisons, Huntsville proper maintained an uneasy relationship with the Texas prison system, one that would linger on well into the twentieth century. On one hand the prison system offered jobs as it became an important cog in the local economy, while on the other, residents often became defensive whenever they heard the community referred to as a "prison town." But the truth was, that despite being the last home and final resting place of Texas legend Sam Houston and the future location of the Sam Houston Normal Institute (which opened 30 years after the prison), Huntsville depended on the prison system as a key component of the local economy, providing jobs as well as a steady supply of prison system employees for the area's small businesses.
For most of its history, the Texas State Legislature devoted minimal funds for the needs of the Texas prison system and its occupants, except for food and lodging. The lack of financial support from Austin affected every aspect of its developing prison system, from the quality of correctional officers, to more importantly, the well-being of prisoners. Moreover, there was little public support for prison reform, with popular sentiment suggesting that rather than coddling the inmates with taxpayer money, rehabilitation could be best achieved through some incarnation of tough love.
Early on a mindset had developed within state government that has generously been described as a "fiscally conservative approach to social programs," or what one author has described as "decades of neglect." Nowhere did this ring more true than in the State's nascent prison system. Although there were numerous attempts at prison reform during its first 150 years, these were mostly sporadic forays by various church groups or sparked by media investigations or court cases initiated by inmates.
Few would dispute that neglect by the state became the "dominant paradigm." This pattern of prisoner neglect was rooted in the correctional turmoil at the end of the War Between the States, which launched southern criminal justice systems from Texas to the Carolinas into unprecedented upheaval as almost half of the southern population made the transition from slavery to Emancipation. It would be an understatement to suggest that correctional accommodations were in short supply. As one historian put it, the onset of Emancipation in the postwar South "placed enormous strains on a modest prison system gutted by war." Southern states had little money to spend on prison repairs, and in any case, prisons remained a low priority considering the ubiquity of empty southern treasuries, and the fact that most Anglo Texans rankled at the thought of "the burden of state imprisonment on state finances."
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Prior to Emancipation, jails, prisons, and other places of confinement in the South were built to hold poor whites. Little thought went toward confining blacks, since the overwhelming majority of them were ensconced in a system of plantation bondage. What's more, slaves were considered a major financial investment, and slave owners would be ill-served to have their chattel imprisoned, when they could be picking cotton. When it came to punishment, slaves were typically physically chastised with the lash and then sent back to work, a violent tradition that would resonate on Texas prison farms well into the twentieth century.
The war had devastated the Texas economy, as it did the rest of the former Confederacy, leaving Huntsville's Walls unit as one of the few purpose-built southern state prisons still standing at the end of hostilities. If losing the war was not bad enough, postwar Texas was beset by numerous challenges, including political and civil chaos, a near-empty state treasury, and rampaging outlaw gangs, all contributing to the weakening of state rule. Moreover, the war's conclusion paralleled an ever-increasing and overcrowded prison population. Strapped for funds, Texas prison officials followed in the steps of Mississippi's and Louisiana's penal systems over the following decades, turning to the more lucrative strategy of leasing out prisoners to private contractors rather than footing the bill for prisoner upkeep themselves. It was then left to the contractors to do whatever they pleased to maximize profits and minimize labor costs — to decide how much food, shelter, and clothing were adequate, and how they wished to punish their charges.
Post-Civil War convict leasing was not a new strategy; what was new was the scale of convict leasing in the South compared to other regions of the country. Historically, convict leasing was not just a southern phenomenon. In the late 1790s, for example, the Massachusetts legislature approved a plan by prison administrators to hire out state prisoners to private lessees. Other Northern states experimented with it in the 1860s (California adopted it for a short spell in the 1840s), but mostly as a stopgap measure for supplying a work force to labor-starved industries during the Civil War, as a generation of young working men was sacrificed on the nation's battlefields. The conditions of Northern penal labor usually involved contracting prisoner labor to private businessmen. However, these were ephemeral experiments and convict leasing did not become a long-term corrections strategy in other regions of the country until the system was embraced by Texas and other Southern states after Reconstruction.
Various explanations have been given for the variation between southern leasing and other regional incarnations of this policy. Back in 1931, the same year the Texas Prison Rodeo was introduced, one commentator offered a climatological explanation for the disparity in regional leasing trends, noting that, "Climate accounts in part for the prevalence of road work in the South and for the huge prison farms which can be worked year round." By contrast, "Northern states were limited by climate." However, Texas prison historian Robert Perkinson is among a new generation of scholars who have suggested that convict leasing was conceived as an "alternative regime to the North." The nature of the Southern economy, overwhelmingly rural and with a year-round temperate climate, favored this alternative. Coming on the heels of the plantation system that flourished for almost 200 years, it was not much of a transition to apply some of the same strategies for managing the slave population to the control of convict field labor after Emancipation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Convict Cowboys by Mitchel P. Roth. Copyright © 2016 Mitchel P. Roth. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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