Rodeo in Hell
The gate to the musty-smelling cellblock F slides open with the same metallic, scraping sound it always makes. What gets the inhabitants’ attention is the unfamiliar voice. Muscled arms, full of tattoos, reach between the bars, clutching little mirrors. Unseen eyes peer at the unexpected guest. It’s a classic scene, reminiscent of movies like Birdman of Alcatraz or Riot in Cellblock 11.
“Hey, man, what’s up?” a caged voice yells at jailer Dan Alexander. The guard laughs and responds with a question of his own. “What are you doing here?”
“Back from solitary,” says the con. “I’m behaving myself again.”
“Yeah, right,” laughs Alexander, a tough, thick-set man with a cowboy hat. You can’t fool him. He’s been working in this prison twenty years. “My family knows prison life through and through. My dad worked as a guard here his whole life. Five of my six brothers and sisters spent time behind bars themselves.”
This is the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the most heavily guarded and only maximum-security prison in the state—definitely not where you’d expect to find a rodeo. And yet that’s exactly what 130 hardened criminals are being allowed to take part in this weekend: entertainment for the whole family, performed before a large audience with wild horses and mad bulls inside the prison walls. Most of the Americans I tell about it later, including my American friends in New York, have never even heard of prison rodeo.
The nearly century-old prison complex looks like a medieval fort with thick, whitewashed walls. The guards in the six watchtowers patrol with heavy weapons. Big Mac, as the prison is known, stands on the edge of McAlester, a former mining town (“Home of Cowboys and Italians”) with a population of about 17,750 in Oklahoma’s hilly southeast corner. After the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, which has been making bombs and other explosives for the American military since 1943, the penitentiary is the town’s second-largest employer.
This old-fashioned penal institution houses more than 1,450 prisoners, two to a cell. Guarding, feeding, and tending to the medical care of the population costs only $3.50 per prisoner per day. The reason is simple: the voters prefer to spend as little as possible on criminals.
Most of the inmates are condemned not only to extremely long sentences but to a hopeless life of idleness and monotony as well. Jobs in the library, print shop, or cafeteria are scarce. For disciplinary reasons, the guards regularly subject the population to lockdowns, during which all the prisoners are confined to their cells for days on end. “We house the most dangerous criminals here,” a guard explains. Rehabilitation? He laughs derisively. “No way, man! This is a warehouse. These jailbirds are doing time here.”
No nation on earth throws a larger proportion of its citizenry behind bars than the “Land of the Free.” In the last quarter century, the number of detainees has more than quadrupled, from a half million in 1980 to 2.18 million in 2005. America locks up 25 percent more citizens per capita than any other country in the world. In 2004 the prison population grew by 2.6 percent, or 1,085 prisoners per week. One in every 136 Americans is under lock and key. The explosive growth continues despite a drop in serious crime since 1995. The apparent contradiction can be explained by tougher and longer sentences, the increased criminalization of drug use, and the abolition or curtailing of probation and parole.
Nearly one in five of the inmates at McAlester is imprisoned for murder or manslaughter. More than half are considered violent. There is a chronic shortage of personnel, and many of the guards often work two shifts.
In the summer of 1973, after a three-day hunger strike by most of the prisoners had no effect, the men’s rage over their miserable conditions exploded. They burned down three-quarters of the buildings and took 23 guards hostage for a weekend. Three prisoners died. No prison revolt in American history had ever caused so much damage. The taxpayers of Oklahoma received a bill for more than twenty million dollars.
In December 1985, in the old cellblock F, all hell broke loose again. Rebellious prisoners took five guards hostage. “One of the guards got a knife in his eye,” says Officer Alexander. “He still works here.”
Oklahoma sometimes leads the way. After the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the state became the first to introduce the most modern form of execution: lethal injection. The new technique caught on quickly. By 2001, McAlester was the execution capital of America. In the so-called H-unit, a modern underground bunker in the prison complex where about a hundred men are awaiting death, eighteen murderers received the deadly cocktail in their veins that year—a record for Oklahoma, which has executed more citizens per capita since the reinstatement of the death penalty than the callous state of Texas, still the leader in absolute numbers.
Amnesty International paid a visit to the “super-maximum-security” H-unit and concluded that the circumstances under which inmates are imprisoned there are “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” and a violation of international agreements to which the United States is a signatory. Condemned men aren’t the only ones in H-unit; violent prisoners are placed there, too, as punishment. They’re all confined 23 hours a day to small, unfurnished concrete cells with no, or scarcely any, natural light or fresh air. It’s a form of isolation torture. Contact between inmates is limited to an hour a day on weekends, when four men at a time are allowed in an empty courtyard enclosed with walls nearly 18 feet tall. Guards seldom patrol the halls; contact between them and the prisoners consists mostly of announcements via intercom.
Once a year, at the end of summer, there’s temporary relief from the jailhouse blues—at least for the prisoners who’ve made it through the past twelve months without any disciplinary punishment. The lawns are cut with extra care, and over the Labor Day weekend the Oklahoma State Penitentiary plays host to a popular festival dating to 1939, a rodeo for professional cowboys and thirteen teams of inmates from the state’s prisons that draws thousands of people from far and wide, including the neighboring states of Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. It’s an old but dying Wild West tradition. The only other remaining prison rodeo is at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, located on a former slave plantation. The McAlester prison and the local chamber of commerce go all out to keep the tradition alive. In 2006, for the first time, they invited two teams of women prisoners to take part, a “modernization” meant to draw more people.
Injuries such as torn hamstrings and broken bones and necks are as much a part of the Wild West aura surrounding the event as the inevitable smack in the dust. And death is always close at hand. Professional cowboys are sidelined by serious injuries all the time. Some wind up permanently confined to wheelchairs or have to pay for their love of this exotic sport with their lives. The grandfather of Justin McBride, the Oklahoma-born world champion bull rider of 2005, for instance, died after being thrown from a bull.
Prisoner Daniel Liles knows the dangers. Liles, who got the nickname Eight Ball (as in “behind the eight ball”) in the Marines for his seeming bad luck, has taken part twelve times. He’s dislocated both shoulders, his neck, and his arms and torn an eyelid. “But I wouldn’t miss the annual rodeo for all gold in Fort Knox,” he says.
Daniel is the result of a quickie between two teenagers who hardly knew each other. The father of the girl who Daniel’s dad, Carl, knocked up threatened him with a shotgun to force him to marry her. Daniel has never known stability. He’s lived everywhere and nowhere. His mother, LaDonna, who worked in a bar, soon divorced Carl, an alcoholic who regularly beat her. After that she had a succession of other men and husbands. A released prison buddy of Daniel’s shot one of them to death because LaDonna had told him her husband abused her.
As a kid, Liles dreamed of becoming a cowboy. Only behind bars, once a year here in this Oklahoma hell, has he been able to realize that dream. “I’m doing life for killing a man in 1982,” he says. “I was twenty-three, dumb, and wild. So I’ve been locked up more than half my life. I don’t want that murder to be the only remarkable thing I ever do.”
Daniel has black, graying hair, a drooping reddish moustache and a goatee, and muscular arms full of erotic, Nazi, and racist tattoos. His handshake feels like a vise. A lifetime of fighting has left him with several missing teeth. Yet the most striking thing about him is the pair of brown eyes behind his big old-fashioned glasses. He gets his penetrating stare from his father, Carl, who hasn’t had a drink in twenty-five years and who has proudly surrounded himself in his trailer in Arizona with photos of Daniel in the rodeo. “My look got me into a lot of bar fights,” Daniel says, “because other guys thought I was arrogant or pompous.”
Liles was notorious. He played an active part in the riot of 1985, remained violent after that, and was an important drug dealer in the prison. His best friend was the murderer Tony McMullen, who was released from prison and is now a preacher with his own radio show.
The last few years, however, Daniel has become a model prisoner. First, he married Carol, his case manager, twenty years his senior, who fell in love with him. Their “marriage” behind bars lasted seven years. Two years after their divorce, Carol died of cancer. As an old-timer, Daniel is a confidant to many of the inmates, and as a “run man,” he brings fifty-six men their food every day. The staff uses him as a teacher to tell juvenile delinquents that they’ll wind up in this maximum-security institution just like him if they don’t quit their life of crime.
In prison, Liles accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. A minister rebaptized him—in a bathtub. As a born-again Christian, he now reads the Bible a half hour every morning. He prefers the Old Testament. “My favorite passages are from the first book of Kings,” he says. “They talk about the prophet Elijah. He fought against godlessness and idol worship. He slew the false prophets of Baal. I identify with him. Elijah’s faith is active, not passive.”
Eight Ball, as the prisoners and guards, to Daniel’s chagrin, still call him, refuses to provide details about the murder for which he was sentenced to life and for which his younger brother, Mark, received the death sentence. Exactly what happened is still not clear, but from documents in the case file and conversations with criminal investigator Kim Marks and Daniel’s former lawyer, James Rowan, the following facts can be reconstructed. Daniel, his girlfriend Gail, and his brother Mark came to Oklahoma City from West Virginia in the summer of 1982 looking for work. Daniel was going to go to work for a bricklayer; Gail worked as an exotic dancer in the Y’all Come Back Saloon. “The most improbable stripper I’ve ever seen,” laughs lawyer Rowan. “She was as skinny and bony as Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oil.”
Gail met Joe Yarbrough, a dealer in Harleys and other motorcycles, at the strip joint. He always had a thick roll of bills in his pocket. Mark asked Gail to lure him to their motel so he could rob him. Just before Yarbrough and Gail entered the motel room that fateful August night, Mark ordered his brother, Daniel, to stand behind the door. The victim saw Daniel and tried to draw his knife. Mark was too quick for him and stabbed him seven times in the chest with a stiletto while Daniel held him. Yarbrough collapsed and bled to death while the brothers took off with his money, his keys, and his car to rob his motorcycle shop. They took ornaments, T-shirts, seven six-packs of beer, two guns, and Yarbrough’s conspicuously painted delivery van, then dumped his body outside Oklahoma City by the South Canadian River. Mark told the police that he had stabbed the man in self-defense and that his brother just happened to be in the motel room and knew nothing of the plan to rob Yarbrough. Daniel refused to clear himself or to testify against his brother.
A week before Mark was to receive a lethal injection, the United States Supreme Court decided to send the case back to Oklahoma, declaring the death sentence invalid because the public prosecutor had failed to order a prescribed psychological examination during the preparation of the case. At the second trial, to everyone’s amazement, Daniel said that he, not his brother, had administered the fatal blows. “I screamed that he was crazy,” says attorney Rowan, “that he was throwing his life away. But he refused to change his mind. Still, because he took the rap, he did save his brother’s life. His death sentence was converted to life.”
The brothers are now in different wings of the McAlester prison and seldom see each other. Whether Daniel really was the perpetrator remains a mystery. All he’ll say is that he hates all authority and is a hothead who can hardly control his aggression: “That’s one of the reasons I’m behind bars. I ought to be over it, but that’s not the case. I force myself to keep my mouth shut and act like a lamb. I don’t react to provocations anymore. I only resort to fisticuffs if I’m attacked.”
Daniel looks forward to this weekend every year. He knows that critics consider the prison rodeo a perverse, barbaric anachronism and are indignant that the prisoners and animals are abused for the public’s amusement. “Some people would really like to see us get hurt,” he adds. “So what? You’ve got twelve months to recover.” He shrugs and adopts a tough, self-assured pose.
“No, I’m no masochist. Taking part in the rodeo means two days I can be free. On a wild bull. I don’t have any control at all over the rest of my life anymore. But when I tear into the arena on an animal like that, I’m the one who controls everything. Then I forget the rest. The excitement and the rush of danger are indescribable. It’s pure adrenaline, man, the best feeling in the world. Perfect freedom I enjoy to the max. The rodeo’s the only thing that keeps me going; the only thing that keeps me from going nuts.”
Tomorrow is the big day. Today, like the prisoners from the other teams, he’s allowed to practice on the wild bulls. Inmates and guards alike step back in respect as the bulls, with their partially filed horns, walk into the narrow iron chutes. Daniel’s bull rolls its eyes. Its roar sets your teeth on edge. Frustrated, it kicks against the sides of the chute. It snorts, pants, and spits, banging its powerful head against the gate. Daniel has climbed over the edge of the chute and now hangs above the bull. He puts a bite guard in his mouth but declines the bulletproof vest (“Too annoying,” he explains). As the rope around its impressive scrotum is tightened, the bull goes crazy, shrieking with widely flared nostrils. Daniel’s right hand, in a leather glove, squeezes the handle on the neck of the Brahman bull.
“Ready?” asks his assistant.
Daniel nods and says, “Let’s go.” He’s all concentration. The gate springs open, and the bull storms into the arena wild-eyed, exploding like a seventeen hundred pound bundle of dynamite. The bull rages as if possessed. Strings of saliva fly from its mouth. Clouds of dust rise from its hide as it kicks both rear legs backward simultaneously with all its might in a furious attempt to rid itself of the annoying rope in its groin. To keep his balance, Daniel chops at the air with his free, left hand. On no account may that hand touch either the animal or his own body, or Daniel will be disqualified. Prisoners need hang on for only four seconds—professionals, eight—to qualify for the competition. Those seconds last an eternity.
Before he knows it, Daniel is lying in the dust, gasping for air. Having thrown its tormentor, the bull turns and assumes a threatening posture. Head down, it scrapes the sand with a front hoof and takes a few steps forward. Then, suddenly, it turns its head, distracted by the colorfully dressed rodeo clown. Daniel snatches his battered cowboy hat from the sand, runs to the iron fence, and climbs it as fast as he can to escape the bull. He wipes the sweat from his flushed brow with his sleeve and says, “Whew, that was close.”
He fills his lungs with fresh oxygen. The disappointment shows on his face as he says, “I hope it goes better than that in public tomorrow.”
Warden Gary Gibson has prepared for the event in his own way. As a host who wants to demonstrate what’s meant by Southern hospitality, he opens the rodeo weekend with a barbeque in the yard of his white villa on the grounds of the penitentiary complex. Ranchers with weathered faces and rough, calloused hands; bankers, lawyers, and businessmen with the pale look of people who spend all their time in an office; and other upright citizens of the mining town walk around in their Sunday jeans, cowboy boots, and plaid shirts. Tipping the brim of their cowboy hats, they greet one another with, “Hi, you son of a gun.” Some guzzle whiskey; many have a wad of chewing tobacco in their cheek.
The guests say grace in unison, and then volunteers begin dispensing the refreshments. There are hamburgers, potato salad, and drumsticks, and cans of Coke and other soft drinks in big coolers of ice—all paid for by the prison. Kentucky Fried Chicken is doing the catering. Coca-Cola, the rodeo’s sponsor, has hung a banner that reads, “Welcome, Rodeo Fans.” A local beauty sings country and bluegrass from the back of a farm wagon. The guests sit on bales of straw. The cars and pickups have vanity plates and bumper stickers with lines like “Jesus Is Lord” and “Sportsmen for Bush.”
“Redneck” is a badge of honor worn with pride here, not an insult as in the sophisticated Northeast or on the West Coast. Many Okies, as the rest of America condescendingly refers to the inhabitants of Oklahoma, seem hard and unrelenting, like the life and climate here. The atmosphere is redolent of an annual country fair. The only ones who draw attention, however unintentionally, to the surrealistic nature of this barbeque are the prisoners with light sentences who hang like ghosts around the periphery of the large, open yard. The word “Inmate” stands in big black letters on their white T-shirts. They empty the garbage cans and clean up other trash. No one deigns to look at them.
“Yeah, we’re conservative, and the church is important,” a shopkeeper says proudly. With his oblong face, bald head, and stern gaze, he looks like the farmer with the pitchfork in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic. He points out that McAlester is known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. Correctly, it seems. There are no fewer than seventy-seven churches, one for every 234 inhabitants. Although Jesus repeatedly comes up in conversation, the Christian values among these believers seem to come primarily from the Old Testament. It’s the Old Testament thirst for revenge, of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” that predominates, not love of one’s neighbor.
Around 7:30 it’s time to head in the direction of the stadium in the rear of the prison fortress. The sharp hooks of the barbed wire glisten in the warm, saturated light of the evening sun. The guards in the watchtowers smile and holler now and then at a friend. Children and adults alike speak loud and fast in excited anticipation. The massive entrance to the prison arena is painted a patriotic red, white, and blue. Life-size silhouettes of a cowboy and a cowgirl leaning nonchalantly against a wall with a raised knee indicate the entrances to the men’s and women’s restrooms. Inside the stadium walls, it looks like any other sports arena: stands with soft drinks, hot dogs, hamburgers, caps, and T-shirts. But there’s one difference: the proceeds benefit the prison. The bleachers slowly fill. Young families, teenagers, and seniors all grab a seat on the concrete benches.
Before the spectacle begins, the prison chaplain offers a prayer. Every cowboy hat in the nearly packed 12,500-seat stadium is doffed, including in the section where groups of guards and prisoners are sitting behind iron bars. “Lord, bless this rodeo and watch over all the participants and animals. Amen.”
Then a young lady comes riding into the arena standing on the back of a white horse, her blond hair flying, the Stars and Stripes clutched proudly in her right hand. “The most beautiful flag on earth,” says the master of ceremonies. From the loudspeakers booms the unmistakable baritone of supercowboy and -patriot John Wayne, who explains in lofty and poetic fashion just why he loves America. The crowd eats it up. A lady behind me can’t keep her eyes dry.
Emcee Lynn Phillips wears green scrubs in an operating room in his daily life. Now he introduces the show’s numbers in a cowboy hat. First, he announces the national anthem. Many people put their right hand to their heart, and everybody sings along at the top of their lungs—especially when they come to the last two lines about the star-spangled banner waiving in triumph over “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Then the “star” of the evening—the warden—gallops in on a magnificent horse, flanked by his top staff. The emcee knows the ritual and goads the prisoners in the section to his rear. “And here comes the guy who’s always popular with the guys behind me: the warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Gary Gibson!”
While the public applauds enthusiastically, a large chorus of boos rises from the prisoner section. Then the emcee introduces the participating teams of prisoners of the “the wildest rodeo in the West.” They have names like The Bandits, The Hawks, and The Desperados.
As the most experienced “bull rider” in the prison, Daniel Liles is the captain of The Over-the-Hill Gang again this year. This is what he looks forward to all year long. This is why he does five hundred pushups a day in his cell, where he keeps a photo of his rodeo team. He and his seven teammates kneel and form a circle, arms around one another’s shoulders, and pray for a safe outcome. They may act like macho men who’ll try anything, but inside they’re frightened just the same.
For the first number, “The Mad Scramble,” all thirteen gates spring open at the same time. Bulls and wild horses storm into the arena. None of the daring amateur cowboys from the various prison teams lasts more than a couple seconds on the back of the furiously bucking animals. Not even Daniel.
The public loves it. Cheers and applause fill the stadium. One of the jailbirds is crushed under the full weight of a bull and is carried off on a stretcher. It later turns out that his pelvis is shattered. The arena looks like a battlefield. Several prisoners lie dazed in the sand before finding the strength to scramble to their feet again. The bizarre spectacle brings to mind how the Romans threw criminals into amphitheaters to fight for their lives as gladiators.
The crowd watches the rodeo numbers of the professional cowboys and cowgirls—such as calf roping—politely, but what everyone has really come to see are murderers and rapists wrestling ferocious animals. The contests that involve teams of three prisoners trying to catch, saddle, and ride a wild horse or rope a young bull make for hilarious scenes that look a lot like slapstick. Only after endless pushing, pulling, and falling does Daniel’s team succeed in saddling a wild big-eyed mare. Daniel’s mother winces and says, “That’s the same horse that kicked Danny in his eye last year.” When one of the prisoners finally climbs on the mare, the animal throws him in the stands.
Daniel also demonstrates his machismo by participating in “Poker Play.” Together with three other inmates, he sits at a table in the middle of the arena—happy, now, to accept a bulletproof vest—as a wild bull bears down on them. The man who shows the most contempt for death and remains sitting the longest wins a prize. It’s not Daniel but another prisoner who turns out to be the bravest. That costs Daniel points for the trophy for best rodeo participant he wants so bad. He’s never won it, though he’s finished second several times.
The high point of the evening is the closing act, “Money the Hard Way.” All one hundred thirty prisoners enter the arena at the same time to try to snatch a marker worth a hundred bucks from between the horns of a bull. That’s a lot of money to a jailbird, who can make a maximum of twelve dollars a month if he’s lucky enough to get a job.
“Money the Hard Way” is the show’s most popular number. The bull has its mind set on ramming something and sprints right through the big crowd of prisoners. Many come away with scrapes and sore limbs. Victims caught on the horns literally fly through the air and land with a hard smack in the sand. When one of the inmates finally succeeds in grabbing the evening’s jackpot, the stadium erupts in cheers. Most of the prisoners then run to the section where friends and family are sitting with video and photo cameras at the ready. A scene of flashing lights and excited shouting ensues. The guards admonish the inmates to take their seats again behind the barbed wire, and they meekly obey. But for a moment they they’ve tasted freedom, proof that they’re still alive, that they’re more than criminals with a number.
While most of the spectators leave the arena quickly, the prisoners’ family members linger as long as possible to wave and yell. And Daniel, who’s survived the adventure without any broken bones, waves his cowboy hat in the direction of his mother, now an emaciated single woman in a wheelchair who had to have a leg amputated for gangrene. She came specially to live in McAlester, near the prison where two of her four sons spend their days. During the rodeo, she’s cheered her Danny with cries like, “Come on, Eight Ball!” It’s clear from everything that her eldest son is the apple of her eye, a good kid who, according to her, had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. With pride in her voice, she still calls him “my boy.”
Translated by John Antonides