Filmmaker Bradley Beesley and his team admit beginning the project “mostly informed by the cultural lore of prison through film and music such as Cool Hand Luke, Stir Crazy, and Folsom Prison Blues.” That quickly changed. Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo was released Friday.

I’ve talked about prison rodeos before (Damon Winter, Tim McKulka and Gary Winogrand). The Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo is new to me; didn’t know it existed. It’s the largest “Behind the Walls” rodeo in the US.

From the synopsis, “In 2006, female inmates were allowed to participate in the rodeo for the first time. In a state with the highest female incarceration rate in the country, these women share common experiences such as broken homes, drug abuse and alienation from their children. Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has held an annual ‘Prison Rodeo’. Part Wild West show and part coliseum-esque spectacle, it’s one of the last of its kind – a relic of the American penal system […] Within this strange arena the prisoners become the heroes while the public and guards applaud.”

I was also happy to find a Q&A with three ladies from Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo at SXSW 2009. They’d been out a year at the time. They are optimistic and they are role models.

Since last year, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo has shown around the world and inside prisons.

The self-respect gained by the ladies necessarily tempers my reservations toward prison rodeos. It seems like they’ve genuinely benefited from the activity, but this could have as much to do with the film-making around the activity. The entire package was a program in team building, setting and achieving goals.

The film also has a much needed outreach component:

“We’d like to use this documentary and the stories of the people connected with the film to help recognize the lives of inmates and those re-integrating into society. We’d like to create grassroots dialogue to improve awareness of issues and create opportunities. In addition, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is establishing a Scholarship for inmates attending college while incarcerated.”

Bravo, bravo … I don’t want an encore though. I want the ladies to keep kicking recidivism rates into touch.