A casual observer today might never know that a now-empty field near the Huntsville ("Walls") Unit once hosted "The Wildest Show Behind Bars"--the Texas Prison Rodeo. The rodeo was launched in 1931 during the Great Depression, and was originally held in a baseball field. Lee Simmons, General Manager of the Texas Prison System at the time, intended the rodeo to be a source of income for the prison as well as an outlet for the entertainment of prisoners and employees alike. However, the rodeo became more wildly popular with the public than Simmons could have ever predicted.
In the years 1950-51, a new open-air arena made of concrete, steel, and brick was constructed to replace the baseball field using prison labor. The arena cost one million dollars to erect and could seat approximately 20,000 spectators. The prison invited the public to come view the spectacle of prisoners every Sunday of each October annually, and their stands were consistently packed.
The rodeo proved enormously popular with both inmates and the public--in 1977, at the height of its success, an estimated 90,000 visitors attended. Along with more traditional rodeo events, inmates would perform popular crowd-pleasers like "Hard Money" where the goal was to retrieve a sack full of cash from between a bull's horns. Female inmates participated in calf roping and greased-pig sacking. Only one rodeo-associated escape was ever reported: two inmates who had been given civilian clothes by an accomplice were ejected from the grounds on suspicion of having snuck into the arena without paying!
It did not take long for the prison rodeo to become a popular part of Texas culture. Notable inmates who performed for the crowds included Candy Barr and the Goree Girls, so called because they came from the nearby women's prison, Goree Unit. Mainstream artists and musicians were drawn to the rodeo as well, including the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Ray Price. In 1975, astronauts and cosmonauts participating in that year’s joint Apollo-Soyuz space mission attended the rodeo. Scenes filmed at the arena were included in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy and played a pivotal role in the movie's plot. The Texas Prison Rodeo was quickly becoming a cultural icon.
It was not to last. In 1987 officials deemed the brick and concrete stadium structurally unsafe, and estimates for its repair reached as high as $800,000. Despite the rodeo’s popularity and iconic status, an ongoing economic recession sealed its fate. Not even offers of financial assistance from public and private donors could save it. The arena quietly decayed for more than two decades until it was finally demolished in 2012 by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Today, only one standing section of the arena survives and it is currently used by the Huntsville ("Walls") Unit as a dormitory for inmate trustees.
The demise of the Texas Prison Rodeo has often been portrayed as a simple economic response to an unexpected financial liability. In reality, several underlying factors contributed to its fate. The growing urbanization of the state meant fewer inmates had the necessary background or skills to participate. Changes in societal attitudes regarding incarceration and the treatment of inmates, coupled with Huntsville Unit's reputation as the home of "the nation's most-active death chamber", also affected the rodeo's reputation. And finally, federal funding from the War on Drugs made it less important for the state prison system to be economically self-sufficient. As former warden Jim Willett has put it: "TDCJ simply did not want to be in the rodeo business any longer."