McALESTER, Okla – This southeast Oklahoma community is synonymous with prisons and rodeos. McAlester was once home to the only “behind the walls” event of its kind in the country. According to OSP Sgt. Davis Spears, “They weren’t professional bull riders but they sure did enjoy it.”
For 70 years, the OSP Outlaw Rodeo allowed Oklahoma inmates a chance to compete in a variety of contests.
Today, the only cowboys here are painted on the weathered bricks. Sgt. Spears said, “It’s a ghost town out here. Feral cats and raccoons and a skunk or two.”
But this 12-thousand seat, patriotic Colosseum still thrills with retrospect. “Fans everywhere. Convicts over here, hoopin’ and hollerin’,” said Spears.
Mark McManus treasured those days with his dad, a correctional officer at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He recalled, “Right down here a bull almost getting up on the fence. It was pretty exciting. It made a lot of people move out of the way. It’s one of the things I enjoyed doing because I followed in my dad’s footsteps and ended up coming to work out here.”
Almost every Labor Day weekend since 1940, inmates put it all on the line -- man versus bull for glory and a hundred dollar bill. Captain Chad Morgan said, “You see people getting tossed left and right. Inmates running around until someone would snatch it off his head. If you had a good bull, it’s pretty entertaining. Money the hard way.”
The old rodeo jerseys disguised the broken bones and blood stains. Sgt. Spears remembered, “I worked the medical gate and the guy got stomped by the bull. I went out there and pulled him out through the mud and stuff. Probably the most exciting thing I was part of out here.”
It was entertainment for a throng of spectators and a reprieve for the men and women convicts. Morgan said, “It gives them something to look forward to. Behave, you get to go to the rodeo. If not, maybe next year.”
There will likely never be a “next year” for the outlaw rodeo -- with budget cuts, insurance premiums, and skyrocketing repair costs.
But no one can ever lock down decades of unbridled memories of the greatest show on dirt.