Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. has held an annual prison rodeo. Part wild west show, part coliseum-style spectacle, this relic of the American penal system is a tradition for the prison and community at large. Prisoners compete on wild broncos and bucking bulls, risking severe injury while friends, family and others cheer them on. For the female hopefuls and male competitors like 14-year rodeo veteran Danny Liles, the chance to battle livestock offers a brief respite from prison life.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo goes behind prison walls to follow a group of female inmates (and a few male prisoners) on their journey to the rodeo. In the state with the highest female incarceration rate in the country - and 80% of women prisoners are mothers - many share experiences such as broken homes, drug abuse and alienation from their children. Crystal Herrington, an inmate rodeo rookie, hasn't seen her son since he was a few months old. She declares herself a changed woman, saying she wants "to get out and pick him up."
As inmates prepare for dangerous rodeo competitions, the boredom of unchanging days, the tension of parole hearings and the longing for family remain constant. The rodeo means more than simply battling livestock. It's a chance to leave their crimes behind and become heroes, however briefly.
In a world where counting time is a way of life, eight seconds - the qualifying score in bull riding, the most popular rough-stock event - becomes the most important time in the world. Though serious injuries are common, the danger is not enough to deter these fierce contestants, who are vying for bragging rights as well as prize money. Ultimately, the male participants learn that the women deserve to be considered equal competitors.
Following its Cinemax premiere, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo will be screened inside prisons as part of an outreach campaign to explore rehabilitative and educational programs.
Bradley Beesley has directed nine feature-length films, including six documentaries, a concert movie and a science fiction narrative. His films include "Okie Noodling," "The Fearless Freaks," "SummerCamp!" and "The Creek Runs Red." Beesley has collaborated on numerous music videos with The Flaming Lips and recently teamed up with the band's leader, Wayne Coyne, to make the sci-fi film "Christmas on Mars."
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo was directed by Bradley Beesley; produced by Bradley Beesley, Amy Dotson and James Payne; executive producers, Julie Goldman, Krysanne Katsoolis and Caroline Stevens; original music by Jason Quever; cinematography by Alan Novey; edited by Louisiana Kreutz. For Cinemax Reel Life: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.