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Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

The main things that struck me while watching Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo: How positive, self-aware, and focused the inmates seemed to be, how grounded, emotionally open, and perceptive these women are, and how sincere the staff appears about wanting to help the women transition out of the prison system.

Maybe it is a function of Oklahoma State Prison, specifically the women’s prison and the programs there, but the staff and the prisoners interviewed both seemed to be caring and focused on rehabilitation and making progress, rather than just warehousing and marking time.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, which makes its world premier March 14 at South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX, focuses on a group of female prisoners readying themselves for a series of challenges, not the least of which is the annual Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo, where they will be riding real bucking broncs and bulls–many for the first time, since it’s only the second year that women inmates are participating in the 40-year-old event, competing against other prisons and male inmates with far more experience.

The women train on a manually operated bucking device which hardly prepares them for the snorting live beasts they must confront at the “World’s Largest Behind the Walls Rodeo.” For many it is the only chance their families get to see them–and wow, how proud and thrilled and loving these family members are, waving and blowing kisses. Yet other spectators thrive on the gladiator-like events where inmates are tossed in the air and trampled by livestock, making this a controversial event.

But the inmates must also deal with personal struggles along with the challenges of the rodeo events. For Foxie, she’s meeting her family for the first time in over a decade, while other women (and one of the male rodeo stars in prison for murder) must face the parole board with all the hopes and fears inherent in that process.

Oklahoma has the highest percentage of women prisoners in the United States, and 80% of women in the system are mothers–and meth seems to be the pernicious cause of many of the women’s problems. It is moving and heartbreaking to see them interact with their children. One daughter explains how she hated her parents, both inmates, but now she has learned how not to live from their example, and has grown to love and respect her mother.

Ending the cycle of imprisonment seems to be the goal of the Oklahoma prison system, at least as shown in Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. The rodeo itself gives prisoners a sense of pride and accomplishment, one weekend of relative freedom where they risk extreme physical injuries for psychological and spiritual growth.

Sadly, budget cuts have affected the rodeo, so it remains to be seen if this controversial, yet seemingly beneficial, program will continue.