Sorry, Cowboys: Oklahoma Prison Rodeo Cut in Budget
McALESTER, OK -- Cowboys are the latest victims of Oklahoma's budget woes.
For the first time in nearly 70 years, Oklahoma's annual prison rodeo has been canceled -- hurting business owners, disappointing tourists and stealing the rodeo-riding dreams from penitentiary-bound participants.
Gone is the financial bonanza generated from motel stays, ticket sales and souvenirs.
"It's a tremendous loss," lamented Terry Crenshaw, a warden's assistant who grew up four blocks from the prison and used to ride to the rodeos on his horse to obtain free admission.
Without looking at a calendar, the 18,000 residents here know when it's rodeo time at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary: Motels are booked solid, restaurants bustle and traffic along downtown's main drag slows to a crawl.
Up to 15,000 visitors typically pour in -- they came from 15 states last year -- and foreign documentary film crews and freelance photographers are commonplace as inmates test their skills with amateurs and professionals from beyond the walls.
Inmates grow equally excited, and are eager to strut their stuff in front of their sweethearts, some who traveled hundreds of miles to see them. Out of the 1,000 inmates at McAlester, only about 100 make the show ring.
Even though the rodeo can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to McAlester businesses, the $120,000 or so needed to stage the games was deemed a luxury as Oklahoma struggles with an expected 20 percent drop in revenue. Already the state has cut social programs and a handful of agencies are using furloughs to trim their spending plans.
At the prison, rodeo overtime alone cost $30,000 last year, and preparing the arena on the expansive prison grounds took at least $25,000.
On Wednesday, Crenshaw showed off the haggard rodeo arena. The field was a soggy mess, the blue paint on the bleachers flaking. The lack of maintenance was evident.
Inmate Nicholas Hand, a skinny 28-year-old with tattoos on one arm and a buzz haircut, is in for selling marijuana, and credits the four seconds he spent on a bucking bull with changing his life.
"I used to sell weed and do tattoos, and now I'm looking forward to jumping on a bull and hanging on," said Hand, two weeks away from parole and maybe a new career on the professional riding circuit.
Some small businesses along the main drag in town had yet to find out that this August's rodeo was off.
At the Tobacco Hut Drive Thru, where the special was three packs of Marlboros for $14, workers Jamie Clifton and Amanda Lalli were shocked, and said small shops like theirs would have to brace for the loss.
Their business sells beer, cigarettes and cigars -- staples for the non-inmate cowboys and thousands of visitors during rodeo weekend -- and a windfall for the shop.
"They're cutting their own throats," Jamie said, as a customer rolled up to the window to order a pack of smokes.