For more than 50 years, Huntsville prison put on an annual rodeo throughout the month of October to entertain prisoners, locals, and visitors from across the nation. In his new book Convict Cowboys: The Untold History of the Texas Prison Rodeo
(University of North Texas Press, 2016), Sam Houston State University criminal justice and criminology professor Mitchel Roth
explores the history of the rodeo. The Texas Prison Rodeo began as a small event intended to serve essentially as recreation for prisoners, but grew into an important fundraiser and a nationally known show. It included a range of traditional rodeo events and contests, but also added other acts drawn from various forms of American popular entertainment as cultural sensibilities and prisoner interests changed. The rodeo was, in some ways, one of the more positive aspects of an otherwise brutal and underfunded prison system. Inmates were able to win prizes and interact with the free world, and the proceeds from the rodeo helped provide services the legislature refused to fund. The rodeo was also dangerous, however, and developed against the background of a prison system based on forced labor and corporal punishment.
In this episode of New Books in History
, Roth discusses his new book. He tells listeners about the origins of the rodeo, its development over the decades, and its demise. Throughout its life, the racial and gender dynamics of the rodeo changed with time as did its main events. Its popularity grew to a height with Western nostalgia in the 1950s, but by the 1980s, changing prison populations and changing cultural norms surrounding issues like the treatment of animals brought the rodeo's run to an end. In addition to discussing the life of the rodeo, Roth also discusses controversies surrounding it, the research he completed for the book, and his current project in this episode.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She's currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.