Okla. State Penitentiary warden working to bring prison rodeo back

Warden Jim Farris maintains bringing the rodeo back will benefit the city and state, as well as improve morale for corrections workers and the inmates

By James Beaty
Enid News & Eagle, Okla.

MCALESTER, Okla. — Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Jim Farris says work is ongoing to bring back the Prison Rodeo.

It may not be happening as quick as he hoped, but progress is still underway on the rodeo's retrun, Farris said.

Farris, who is also warden at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, said he's expecting a supplemental engineer's report soon covering everything's that's needed to get the prison rodeo arena ready to host the event again. He outlined his ideas for the rodeo's recurrence during a luncheon hosted by the Indian Nation Chapter of the Scottish Rite at the Masonic Center in McAlester.

After he receives the final engineer's report, Farris told the News-Capital his next step is to meet with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. Farris expects the cost of the upgrades to total approximately $8 million.

Farris noted the last OSP Prison Rodeo was held in 2009. As to why the rodeos ended after that, Farris said he's heard "every reason in the world" as an explanation. He said he's more focused on the prison rodeo's return.

"I'm going to get this back one way or the other," Farris said. "I think the people of McAlester and the state of Oklahoma deserve this."

He maintains bringing the rodeo back will benefit the city and state, as well as improve morale for corrections workers and the inmates as well.

"It's a win-win," said Farris. He said he's still seeing lots of enthusiasm at the state level for the rodeo's return.

"I've got legislative support, and support from the governor's office," said Farris.

Still, it's going to take more than that to bring the rodeo back. Farris spoke of his plans in 2021 to bring the prison rodeo back to OSP, shortly after he became warden at the two facilities — but first he has to deal with the issue of the prison's dilapidated rodeo arena and grounds.

Farris said the way he was raised, if you want to build something, you just go build it. He's well aware that won't be the case in upgrading the prison rodeo arena to get it rodeo-ready again. He mentioned the amount of red tape involved.

Farris said he's been asked if he wanted to forget upgrading the old arena and simply build a new rodeo arena on the prison grounds.

"I didn't want to do that," Farris said, saying he wanted to preserve the history of the original prison rodeo arena.

He related why the project hasn't moved as quickly as he'd hoped.

"When you get into engineering, there's a lot of things to complete," he said. Farris also told why he's giving an update at this time.

"I didn't want the people of McAlester to think I was blowing smoke."

Farris said the initial engineering report, which started in 2021, cost $57,000. He said another $150,000 has been invested in a second, followup engineering report that includes more of the things that need to be completed to upgrade the arena.

"I was hoping the original report was all that I needed, but that's not the case," Farris said. "I want the history kept there," he said and that will require more of an engineering plan than initially expected.

Getting the prison rodeo and grounds back in shape will have the higher-than-expected cost attached to it.

"It's going to be quite expensive, in the neighborhood of $8 million," said Farris.

The warden is undeterred by the amount. He said someone asked "What would the city do?"

"It's not the city's responsibility," said Farris. He said he's already been contacted by other entities interested in helping, with one offer including a request that the organization could hold rodeos of its own at the site.

An upgraded prison rodeo arena would not have to be limited to rodeos, Farris said, mentioning outdoor concerts as another possibility.

Support around the area for the prison rodeo'is very positive, Farris said. "I don't know a legislator who doesn't support this," he added.

Farris said he will be shocked if something happens to prevent the prison rodeo's return.

He said he wants to let people know how the process is going. He knows people in the McAlester area have heard off and on about the prison rodeo's return since 2009, but so far it hasn't. That won't be the case this time, he maintained.

"We're going hard and heavy on this," Farris said.

Those attending the luncheon where Farris spoke of his plans included McAlester Mayor John Browne.

"I fully support the warden and will be as supportive as I can in this endeavor," Browne said.

To learn from an engineering standpoint exactly what it will take to bring the dilapidated prison rodeo arena, concrete bleachers and the arena grounds back up to the level needed to safely host the large outdoor rodeo, Farris contracted with BKL, Inc. of Tulsa, an engineering and architectural firm.

They encountered a daunting sight, from an engineering standpoint, such as dilapidated concrete bleachers inside the rodeo arena in various states of disrepair, including some that were cracking, crumbling or sinking into the ground. Some bleachers have been deemed unrepairable, but Farris wants to preserve as much of the original arena as he can.

Prior to the OSP Prison Rodeo's 2010 cancellation, it drew thousands of visitors and locals from around the state and the nation to McAlester for the then-annual event. Along with traditional rodeo activities, including bull and bronc riding, calf roping and steer wrestling, it also featured unique events and specialty acts, such as money the hard way, the wild horse race and the tub ride.

It continued for approximately 70 nonconsecutive years, with only a few breaks in-between.

OSP's prison rodeo started in 1940, but then came an interruption of several years because of World War II. A few years after the war ended in 1945, the OSP Prison Rodeo resumed in 1948.

Another interruption occurred following the devastating 1973 OSP prison riot, with the prison rodeo then resuming in 1978. By that time it had evolved into a joint venture involving the DOC, the city of McAlester and the McAlester Chamber of Commerce. it ended abruptly when the Oklahoma Department of Corrections canceled the 2010 event.

After the 2009 Prison Rodeo, when the DOC cancelled the rodeo the following year, the agency cited the state budget crunch being experienced at the time, a personnel shortage and the deteriorating condition of the prison's rodeo arena.

For several years local and state officials tried unsuccessfully to bring back the prison rodeo — and they weren't the only ones. Local law enforcement officers offered to assist with security. Discussions were also held about the city or county contributing to the prison rodeo arena's repairs. Without the DOC fully on-board, none of those efforts proved successful.

Farris has attended the Angola Prison Rodeo in Angola, Louisiana, where he said he learned a lot. He plans to apply what he learned to make the OSP Prison Rodeo better than ever — something Farris reiterated he's committed to doing.

"I hope ya'll support it, but even if you don't, I'm not stopping now," he said. "I've gone too far."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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