Jamie Brooks remembers the feeling of excitement mixed with fear the first time she was taken outside prison walls to practice for the rodeo. "I just wanted to get outside the fence, you know, the legal way, because I’d been locked up for so long,” she said. Brooks is one of several former inmates at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft who will step out of the shadows of prison life and into the limelight of national television Thursday during the Cinemax premier of "Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.” The documentary, directed by Bradley Beesley and produced by James Payne and Amy Dotson, follows the women of the Eddie Warrior rodeo team through their training and competing in the country’s only behind-the-walls prison rodeo. The film captures not only the harrowing moments inside the rodeo arena with wildly bucking broncos or bulls but also the raw emotion, disappointment and determination behind the eyes of some of the all-women correctional center’s inmates. For these women, the rodeo is a way to prove themselves as strong as the men, to compete and have fun, and to legally escape the walls that confine them despite the danger they face in the arena. "I think they feel that it’s an opportunity to be involved with this extremely stimulating event where their normal life is not stimulating at all,” Payne said. "Their daily lives are regimented, repetitious and restricted. To them, the disparity in this adrenaline-charged event is attractive.” Underlying the action of the rodeo, the documentary plays an advocacy role for Oklahoma’s incarcerated women. The state has the highest rate of women behind bars in the country. According to The Associated Press, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate for women is 131 per 100,000 residents. The national average is 69 per 100,000. The film crew was allowed unprecedented access to several of Oklahoma’s maximum security prisons to film the documentary. "I think people are going to be attracted to the film because of the strangeness of the environment and the privilege of the viewpoint. To have 10 cameras behind a maximum security prison and cover a rodeo that’s almost 70 years old in a way that it had never, ever been covered before is kind of cool and interesting to people,” said Payne, who runs FieldGuide, an Oklahoma film and video production company. The film humanizes its incarcerated subjects in a way not many documentaries have. To Brooks, 31, a taste of freedom was more intriguing than meeting face-to-horns with a rodeo bull. But she appreciated how the film crew came in and followed through with promises to portray her and the women around her in a more positive light than most people could imagine. The filmmakers are using the insight and experience they gained while shooting in prison to reach out to prisoners through a scholarship fund for women re-integrating into society and by screening the film in prisons. Brooks and several of the other women featured saw the film for the first time in July at one such screening. For Brooks, seeing her prison days played out on a big screen was moving but distressful. "It’s really emotional because it’s a place that I just never want to go back to. That was a really painful part of my life,” she said. Today, Brooks said she feels like a role model to women re-entering society. After spending almost 14 years in prison, she has a good job in Checotah, a roof over her head and her own car. Beesley, a University of Oklahoma graduate, said, "I would hope that we’re humanizing these people and showing that these women are smart, they’re beautiful, they’re funny, they have mothers. They are mothers. ... They’re just like everyone else — maybe they’re a good person that got in a bad situation.” Beesley is well-known for his Oklahoma-based films including "Okie Noodling” and the Flaming Lips documentary "The Fearless Freaks.”
OnlineTo watch the official movie trailer for "Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” go to NewsOK: NewsOK.com/the oklahoman
On DVDThe filmmakers hope to release the film on DVD by the end of the year and are working toward a future theatrical release. After Thursday’s Cinemax premiere, the film will be shown on HBO periodically. For more information about "Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” go online to www.sweetheartsoftheprisonrodeo.com.