North Dakota Prison Rodeo | Prairie Public Broadcasting

North Dakota Prison Rodeo

Jul 29, 2019

When you hear the term “prison rodeo” the first thing that might spring to mind is inmates causing a ruckus, but you might be surprised to know that a prison rodeo is in fact a traditional rodeo except inmates are the ones participating. 

The first prison rodeo got started by Marshall Lee Simmons in 1931 at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville when he made a rodeo program in the prison’s baseball stadium to give prisoners an energy outlet. And apparently, they needed that outlet, for their crazy performances started to draw crowds and the ticket line ran two blocks when Simmons publicly opened the doors. Today, the only still-functioning prison rodeo is the Angola Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary, but back in the 1970s several other states started prison rodeos of their own, including North Dakota.

On this date in 1987, a news article detailed some of the highlights of the 14th Annual North Dakota Prison Rodeo, and it touted the importance of such programs. The inmates competing were by no means professionals, but the point was not to showcase talent. It was an opportunity for the inmates to relax, while giving outsiders a glimpse of life on the inside. Randy Hoff, a steer-wrestler serving three years for burglary said, “The prison rodeo is a chance for the public to see that we're not a bunch of scum like some people think we are.”

But apart from the general public, the rodeo also let inmates see their families without hard time limits or being separated by a pane of glass. One man relaxed with his arm around his wife, and families shared laughs together. However, after these welcome hours of relaxation the goodbyes came, and the status quo returned. Many inmates and visitors waited until the last possible seconds to part. One observer, Loris Eberhart, found the scene sad, saying: “…I don't like it. Just look at them sitting there, watching us all leave.”

Unfortunately, the rodeo was discontinued over insurance concerns and funding. However, North Dakota has not given up on proactive approaches with inmates, having recently adapted new practices from Norway, like having fish tanks, barbeques, and field trips. So, while the days of the North Dakota Prison Rodeo are over, a new era of rehabilitative practices has begun.

Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas