In some Sept. 6 editions, the Oklahoma city of McAlester was misspelled in the dateline of a Style article about a prison rodeo. (Published 9/7/2005)
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 resume 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.
"Told her I would drill her front door shut with her and her two kids inside, and burn her house down," he recalls with a throaty cackle. His head is shaved and a blond tuft extends from his chin. A swastika is tattooed across his belly.
"I ain't gonna get hurt," he promises.
Menafee is on the Over the Hill Gang, the team representing the state penitentiary, among 10 inmate squads with names like Wild Bunch, Outlaws and Convict Cowboys from other facilities around the state. Only prisoners viewed as well-behaved are eligible; those who may regard the rodeo as a chance to attempt an unannounced gallop off into the sunset are rejected. Child molesters and residents of death row need not apply.
The Over the Hill Gang's roster includes a car thief, a forger and three convicted murderers. Their unofficial captain is Danny Liles, otherwise known as Eight Ball, because, as he explains, he has always been behind it. Liles is the team's most seasoned cowboy, this being his 11th prison rodeo.
"It the one thing that gives me focus," says Liles, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, his crooked teeth framed by a light brown goatee. He sits in the 13-by-9-foot cell he shares with another inmate, its sliver of a window filled with a view of a guard tower in the distance. A small framed photograph of last year's rodeo team is on his desk, just to the right of a drawing of Jesus.
"To me, it's like I'm not in prison," Liles says of the rodeo. "For two days, I don't mind being here. I feel free."
No 'Stupid College'
The 90 miles of highway that runs south from Tulsa to the penitentiary in McAlester passes by vast plains dotted with cattle and rolls of hay, ranches and truck dealerships and road stops with names like the Speedy Gonzalez Cafe and Red Neck Corner. During the 1800s, this area was the frontier, inhabited by Indian tribes and outlaws, before an entrepreneur named J.J. McAlester built coal mines that drew large numbers of immigrants looking for work.
"McAlester, Home of Cowboys and Italians," reads a billboard at the center of the city, a sign that also advertises the prison rodeo.
Just after Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, McAlester's residents were offered a choice of hosting a new state college or a penitentiary," says Steve Adams, a local historian (and a retired corrections officer). "No one wanted a stupid college; no one had an education," Adams says. "You were either an outlaw, you farmed or you dug coal."
Today, the city of about 20,000 remains blue-collar, its downtown strip of low-slung brick buildings populated by western-wear shops and bargain furniture stores. The city's largest employers include the U.S. Army Ammunition Plant, a main supplier of bombs for the forces in Iraq, but its heart has long been the penitentiary, a sprawling 31-acre fortress that looks like it was built for a Jimmy Cagney gangster flick.
In 1940, nearly a decade after the prison in Huntsville, Tex., began hosting a rodeo that drew crowds of 15,000, Jess Dunn, the warden in McAlester, started his own, hoping to boost inmate morale and raise money for the prison canteen. "Thrills, Spills, Chills" is what the program to McAlester's first rodeo promised, along with inmates in their best prison stripes riding bulls with names like Mussolini and Hitler.
A trip to the prison "was like a shot of adrenaline," says Barbara Clemens-Denem, who was 16 when she was among six rodeo queens chosen for the 1949 shows. A few years before that, she says, her family went to the rodeo, and during a tour of the prison the warden offered her the chance to sit in the electric chair. When she declined, her grandmother, Lulah, hopped on.
Except for a handful of years when it was canceled because of World War II or an inmate uprising in the 1970s, McAlester's rodeo has endured, along with the one hosted by the state prison in Angola, La., even as rising costs and liability concerns have closed the show in Huntsville and at penitentiaries in Mississippi and North Dakota.
Occasionally, the organizers say, someone raises a question about the propriety of the rodeo, not on behalf of the inmates but for the livestock. When the animal rights group PETA demanded the event's cancellation a couple of years ago, a spokesman for Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry dismissed the concern as "silly" and the show went on.
Still, McAlester's show does not draw nearly as large crowds anymore -- more than 65,000 people came for four days of rodeos in the 1960s -- and the organizers keep fiddling to figure out ways to fill the arena's 12,500 seats. Their latest plans include adding female inmates to the mix next year.
"People want to see something fresh," says Layne Davison, a coordinator of the rodeo when he's not overseeing the prison's H-unit, otherwise known as death row.
Remembering the Alamo
Beneath a furnace-hot sun, Leroy Cornell, in a cowboy hat, stood on a patch of grass wiping sweat from his brow. If it weren't for the I-N-M-A-T-E printed across the back of his blue shirt, this 33-year-old convicted murderer could pass for a big-shouldered ranch hand.
"This here's cowboy Roy," he proclaimed to his audience, a line of inmates hanging on the other side of a chain-link fence, watching from a concrete prison yard.
On the afternoon before the rodeo is to begin, the Over the Hill Gang assembled for practice, one of six they will have had before the real thing. Despite the heat, the workout is a welcome break from the inmates' routine, a chance to escape shoe-box-size cells and mind-numbing chores.
"It's something to make you feel alive," Cornell said. "In here, you're just walking, breathing."
Kevin "Skippy" Burch rolled up in his blue pickup, pulling a trailer holding a horse and a sun-sleepy steer he called Spot. A correctional officer, Burch is also the prison's rodeo coach, and this day his mission is to teach the men how to wrestle and rope a steer.
"Get your arm right here, and fall back," he said, wrapping a forearm around the steer's neck. The inmates furrow their brows as if they're sitting through a chemistry class. "He'll go down with you," Burch promised.
Up lumbered Larry Menafee, whose vast experience on the mean streets of Oklahoma City does not include an encounter with a steer. After a few tugs, he and Spot collapsed on the grass.
"Kind of cruel," said Menafee, standing up and allowing himself a moment of sympathy for the beast. Then he noticed a splotch of manure on his boot and he spit a string of expletives.
The men learned bull riding atop a mechanical version named El Toro, the kind John Travolta rode in "Urban Cowboy," which had been pulled out to their grassy patch. "Work your hips into it; that's it," Liles shouted at an inmate as El Toro undulated beneath him.
Liles stripped off his shirt and climbed aboard, extending his right arm in the air for balance as he kept up with the bull, shoulders rolling, head down. He grinned as he dismounted, the sweat glistening on his back where a tattoo of the winged Harley-Davidson emblem stretched from one shoulder blade to the other.
Bull riding, he said, is his favorite event, a challenge that requires "not letting the adrenaline and fear master what you do." It is the kind of discipline, he acknowledged, that failed him on that night 23 years ago at the Alamo Plaza Hotel in Oklahoma City, when he and his brother, Mark, were involved in a murder, stuffing the victim's body in a steamer trunk and dumping it in a brickyard near a river.
After their arrest, Mark Liles confessed to stabbing the man, saying that Danny unwittingly walked in on a robbery as it was unfolding. "I just don't want my brother to pay for something I did," a detective quoted Mark Liles as saying at the time. Danny refused to testify against his brother, despite pleading from his lawyer, James Rowan, who recalled shouting at him, " 'You idiot, you don't realize you're throwing away your life.' And he would say, 'I'm not saying anything about my brother.' "
After their convictions, a judge sentenced Danny to life and Mark to the death penalty. A week before Mark Liles was to be executed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay to consider a future appeal, an order that eventually led to a retrial at which Danny testified that it had been he -- not his brother -- who had committed the murder. A jury convicted Mark of the crime, but his sentence now was life, and now he too resides at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, in a cell up the hill from his brother.
While Rowan believes Danny Liles claimed credit for the murder to spare his brother from a lethal injection, Danny refused to talk in detail about the crime, fearful, he said, that any statement could harm Mark. "I was convicted by a jury," he said. "I'm not going to tell you what my brother did. I'm guilty; as guilty as anyone else."
At times, he said, he thinks back on that night at the Alamo and wonders what might have been. "You learn that you can steer a situation," he said.
All these years later, he's still trying to master the moment, whether it's avoiding fights in the prison yard, or not talking back to the guards, or staying atop a hard-charging bull.
They're In It Together
A few hours before the rodeo, guards shepherd the Over the Hill Gang to their dressing room, a holding cell in the prison's main rotunda, where they trade their inmate duds for red western shirts. Michael Mackey, 33, a convicted murderer, leans over to button down the collar of Ace Hailey, 39, a car thief. The men admire each other's appearance and laugh.
Then they have questions that need answering. If they jump up on the wall ringing the turf to avoid an oncoming bull, Mackey asks, "are we going to get in trouble for trying to escape?"
"As soon as the bull goes, get down off the wall," Skippy Burch advises.
Liles summons the men to the rear, where they kneel for a prayer. "Let us exhort one another and stand by each other," Hailey says. "We are more than what they give us credit for."
On the other side of the prison wall, the warden hosts a barbecue, where a band plays bluegrass and country tunes and guests sit at picnic tables and on bales of hay awaiting the arrival of the governor. "This is just fun," Michael Boyer, a white-haired anesthesiologist, says of the rodeo as he munches on a forkful of beans. "Like a crawfish festival or a watermelon festival. Wholesome entertainment, that's all it is."
As the sun sets, the crowd drifts down the road to the arena, where they fill half of the 12,500 seats, sipping sodas and eating funnel cakes and chili dogs. The events featuring the professional cowboys inspire a drone of quiet murmuring from the stands, but the inmates are another matter, particularly when they tumble from bucking broncos, barely able to hang on for more than a few steps out of the chute.
"I love it," shouts Pete Bonicelli, 45, sitting with his wife and two children after working all day as an electrician at the ammunition plant. He laughs. "You like to see them taking a beating."
A few minutes later another inmate falls and leaves the ring on a stretcher. Another will exit the same way before the show is over.
The cheers grow when the announcer introduces what he describes as a new event, something called "Mexican Sweat," in which a bull lowers his horns and hurtles into a card table where four inmates sit on plastic chairs, lifting one in the air as two others scatter. The lone inmate who remains seated wins a $200 prize.
"Did you enjoy that?" the announcer asks to applause.
That is the appetizer for "Money the Hard Way," for which dozens of inmates pour into the ring as the speakers blare, "I fought the law and the law won." They swarm the bull, which stomps, snorts, bucks and otherwise swats them away like flies.
"Oh, God," a young woman shouts from her seat, while her neighbors laugh and whoop and whistle, everyone standing, until, somehow, an inmate streaks past and manages to grab the burlap sack off the horn. As the crowd roars, the inmate jumps up and down, hands in the air.
From her perch, in a section where many of the inmates' families sit for a better view of their loved ones, LaDonna Meadows smiles. At least her Danny had sat out that round, not out of choice, as it turned out, but because he is about to compete in the last event of the night. The one he looks forward to all year. Bull riding.
"Eight Ball!" Meadows shouts.
The chute opens and the bull tosses Liles around like a feather before dumping him on the earth. His wild ride is over just as it begins. Liles stands and trudges back to his seat, as the spectators head for the exits.
A squadron of guards pat-search the Over the Hill Gang before they are led back to their changing cell, where they get their reward for a long night in the dirt -- hamburgers and vanilla shakes, which they eat while sitting on the floor, replaying their brush with the cowboy life.
"He was going this way and that way, and I'm thinking I got you," Liles says of his bull. "Then it was over."
He smiles. "We had fun, that's all that matters."
The guards come a few minutes later, and the men trade in their red shirts for their usual blues. They parade back to their cells, the barred doors along their path clanging shut, one after the other.