Tyrone looks older than his 44 years as he strokes the muzzle of a sorrel thoroughbred towering above him in a stall at South Carolina’s Wateree River Correctional Institution. “Blame” responds by nudging against his chest. Inmates like Tyrone (prison rules say only first names may be used) have often only seen horses on television. “Anything you can think of, I did it or thought about doing it,” he says: “Been shot at … should be dead. But I never touched a horse.”
Now Tyrone touches lots of horses daily through a program sponsored by the South Carolina Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. SCTRF wants to help inmates become grooms—and in the process reduce their likelihood of returning to prison soon after they leave it.
Twice each year a dozen or so inmates from the 1,000-man prison enter the six-month groom certification program Second Chances. With the help of books, videos, and volunteer specialists, participants learn to feed, exercise, and provide basic training for 33 horses. They learn about tack, grooming, and veterinary and dental care. They muck stalls. After passing three levels, participants graduate from the program and earn a Groom Elite card, which makes them marketable nationwide upon release from the prison. Seven other prisons have similar Second Chances programs.
Wateree’s farm manager is a no-nonsense former undercover agent (we’re leaving out his name because he made some violent enemies). He says the horses humble the meanest, hardest men. The program is difficult and some inmates don’t graduate: “It’s not Disneyland. They have to work and have a desire to want to better themselves. I don’t tolerate any junk. We have to weed out a few, but most want to stay. They learn they can’t make the horses do what they want by intimidation.”
At first, the tall thoroughbreds terrified Tyrone. In and out of prison for drug addiction and theft, he needed to learn a wage-earning skill before his release in 2014—and gradually he overcame his fear. He graduated from Second Chances last year and now has coveted clearance allowing him to assist other inmates still in the program: “They’ve taught me patience more than anything else. Patience is something I didn’t have on the streets. There’s hope in me now. God’s making a way through these horses … blessing me.”
William Cox Jr., an attorney in Camden, S.C., and chairman of the board of the foundation, walks up the breezeway of the barn, pointing out inmates who hug and rub horses and speak to them as if they are children. “It’s win-win,” he says. “Animals and people are rehabilitated.”
The animals need rehabilitation because they are retired racers, past their money-making prime. Saved from becoming dog food, or suffering abuse and neglect, these high-strung animals are bred to run. When they can no longer race, they have to learn to release energy in other ways. The care, training, and exercise they receive at Second Chances calms them.
Cox says inmates in the program work hard and learn to exercise freedom away from the main prison campus, which “serves them well on the outside.” One Second Chances graduate, Chris, scheduled to leave prison in December, knows the names of all 33 horses, their ages, and backgrounds. He hopes to work in the horse industry and says love for horses and work at the barn has replaced his desire for drugs. Another inmate, Aiken, plans to “help run a horse farm” when he gets out: “I’ve learned to respect life.”
Since the inmates are not allowed to ride the horses, most want to learn to ride when they get out. Many desire jobs at stables, farms, and racetracks. “Just seeing these horses every day is a good feeling,” says Tyrone. He shuts the stall door and playfully scolds Blame for trying to nudge it open. “I always liked cowboy movies growing up. Did I ever think I’d be taking care of horses? No. But they’re taking care of me, too.”
Wateree has released 18 Second Chances graduates since 2010. None has returned to life behind bars. Prison officials cannot legally keep track of the jobs prisoners obtain, so they can’t say how many are working with horses now, but they believe what Winston Churchill once said: “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”
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