Reviving The Rodeo: State Lawmakers Look To Bring Back Prison Rodeo

An effort is underway at the State Capitol to bring back a decades-long tradition at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. For nearly 70 years, people from all over the world came to watch prisoners take part in barrel racing, calf roping, and other rodeo activities. The event came to an end 15 years ago, but now some state lawmakers want to revive the rodeo.

Monday, March 18th 2024, 10:35 pm

By: Cal Day


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An effort is underway at the State Capitol to bring back a decades-long tradition at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. For nearly 70 years, people from all over the world came to watch prisoners take part in barrel racing, calf roping, and other rodeo activities. The event came to an end 15 years ago, but now some state lawmakers want to revive the rodeo.

The giant walls of Big Mac house some of Oklahoma’s most notorious and violent men. Rows of razor wire are designed to keep prisoners in and everyone else out.

For decades, on one weekend, the doors to the state’s maximum security prison opened to the public.

“I remember as a kid there were people from all over the world that would come to McAlester, just for the rodeo behind the walls,” said Jake Tannehill, owner of the Tannehill Museum.

Tannehill’s family has spent generations collecting memorabilia from Big Mac, including all those days in the dirt. Many of those memories are on display in the museum.

“Here’s the armbands they would wear on their arms,” said Tannehill.

The first prison rodeo was held in 1940 and went on almost every year after until the last one in 2009. Fifteen years of no crowds and little maintenance has caught up with the arena.

Tannehill says the rodeo’s heyday was in the 60s, 70s and 80s before crowds started dropping off in the 90s. Back then, there were parades to welcome the event, rodeo royalty were crowned and there was even a prisoner band.

“It was a big draw for the McAlester area and really gave a positive relationship with the Department of Corrections and the community,” said Tannehill.

The event was really special to Bill White. In the early 2000s, he took over as the prison rodeo arena director, which is the important job of making sure everything was ready to go.

“I didn’t want it to just look good,” said White. “I wanted it to be perfect every year that I done it.”

The paintings of cartoon characters and signage around the arena were all done by prisoners under White’s supervision. During the rodeo, White worked up to 18 hours a day, often the last one to leave and lock up the gates.

When the rodeo retired in 2009, he followed suit.

“If the rodeo was still going on, I’d still be here, behind the walls in the offseason and doing the rodeo during rodeo season,” said White.

Since the last rodeo 15 years ago, there has been chatter about its return. For the last three years, former Big Mac warden Jim Farris has worked to turn those rumors into reality.

“When I look at it now, I can see how much bigger this can be,” said Farris. “How much more amazing this can be for the state of Oklahoma.”

Farris now works with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. His vision of a revival is big.

“It’ll have that mix of the old, traditional rodeo, but we’re going to modernize it as much as we possibly can,” said Farris.

Plans include reinforcing the walls, creating new entries and adding more seating. Farris wants this to be a venue for other events outside of the prison rodeo, too.

“Whether it be concerts, whether it be other rodeos, it’ll be massive for us,” he said.

Along with the upgrades, Farris hopes to keep the old history and legacy of the arena.

“It would have probably been a little bit cheaper to build a whole new arena, but I wanted to save as much of the tradition that we could here,” said Farris.

$8.3 million to pay for upgrades can now be considered in the State House after passing out of the State Senate. The measure would also create a revolving fund to pay for the rodeo.

Prison leaders say there is a lot of excitement about a rodeo return from prisoners. Their participation would be voluntary.

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