Correction to This Article
In some Sept. 6 editions, the Oklahoma city of McAlester was misspelled in the dateline of a Style article about a prison rodeo.

Ride 'em, Convict!

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005


The pink billowing sky fades to black over the rodeo arena as the Friday night crowd ambles in, women in slinky halter tops and dark red lipstick, men in cowboy hats and blue jeans, tins of tobacco pressed into their back pockets.

Along a back row of concrete benches, LaDonna Meadows, 63, lifts herself from a wheelchair and stands on an artificial leg, her hand over her heart. On white horses, a parade of riders, with sequined crosses stuck to the backs of their red-white-and-blue vests, circles the arena while a singer delivers a honey-smooth rendition of "God Bless America."

Meadows peers through binoculars until she spots a figure across the way, standing among a crowd of men on bleachers between a high, chain-link fence and a wall topped with coils of razor wire. "My boy," she says of Danny Liles, 45, wearing a straw cowboy hat and red western-style shirt, and longing for his moments in the lights.

Meadows smiles, and she seems to forget, at least for the moment, that she's inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where guards in watchtowers stand ready with shotguns and death row is just down the road; that her Danny -- competing tonight in the annual prison rodeo -- is serving a life sentence for murder; that the crowd is here to see snarling bulls trample and gore and otherwise send Danny and his fellow convicts flying.

"Doesn't he look handsome?" Meadows asks, her gaze still fixed on her son.

More than 2,000 years after Caesar, the spirit of ancient Rome endures in southeastern Oklahoma, only now the gladiators wear cowboy hats. The prison rodeo at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, a tradition since 1940 and among the last of its kind, is that most incongruous kind of American pageantry, a mix of Main Street piousness and patriotism, and unabashed Coliseum-style brutality.

For two nights every Labor Day weekend, thousands of spectators make their way to a rodeo arena located behind the prison's white walls for a program that includes professional cowboys wrestling and roping steer and cowgirls barrel racing. But what lures them back each year are the inmates, many of them more outlaw than cowboy, tumbling off bulls and bucking broncos.

The evening's main attraction, the one they promote on T-shirts, is something called "Money the Hard Way," in which inmates jump in the ring to try to grab a burlap sack hanging from a horn of a 2,000-pound Brahman bull. If they're trampled or battered, as some have been over the years, so be it: The prize is $100 (put up by a local car dealership) -- 10 times what many convicts earn in a month serving meals and mopping floors.

"It's our calling card," says Bill McMahan, 72, for 18 years the rodeo's chairman, as he walks through a rodeo street fair the night before the opening. He sips bourbon and water from a plastic cup and chuckles at the prospect of carnage. "People don't go to NASCAR to see the cars run around the track," he drawls. "They're waiting for a big wreck; same with the rodeo. It's human nature. People want to see what ought not be."

Last year, an inmate ruptured his groin riding a bronco; a while back another cracked his skull and racked up at least $150,000 in medical bills, according to deputy warden Kameron Harvanek.

But tackling a steer is not a problem, particularly for someone whose résumé includes gang fights and being shot in the shoulder and stabbed in the leg, as is the case with Larry Menafee, 28, known as Jughead to his prison pals. He is serving a 10-year sentence for intimidating a state's witness.

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