Rescued thoroughbreds give hope, purpose to Va. inmates

By JANET CAGGIANO | Richmond Times-Dispatch | 13 Nov 2007

GOOCHLAND, Va. – Ryan Carroll is a marked man.

“I know some people see me as nothing more than a felon,” he said.

The label means nothing to Kippy’s Nancy. The rescued thoroughbred, after all, relies on Carroll for her survival.

“We’ve become friends,” Carroll said as he affectionately stroked the horse’s neck. “I’ve gotten attached to her. And the nice thing is, horses don’t judge.”

Carroll, 21, is an inmate at the James River Work Center, part of the James River Correctional Center on state Route 6 in Goochland County. It’s the last place he expected to interact with a horse. He has two years left to serve of a five-year sentence for breaking and entering. But every day his bond with Kippy’s Nancy grows stronger.

He’s not the only one devoting each day to horses. Five other inmates have been paired with thoroughbreds as part of the Greener Pastures program.

“The purpose here is not to provide fun and games for the inmates,” said Sam Pruett, warden at the all-male facility. “This is a constructive way for inmates to use their individual energy to accomplish something good.”

The program is the result of a partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the nonprofit organization saves horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter.

The foundation began the vocational training program in 1983. Since then, the group has placed about 1,000 horses in eight prisons around the country.

James River, which took in seven horses in September and seven more Monday, is the first in Virginia. The hope is to expand the program there to 20 horses. The animals, which can’t be ridden because of injuries from racing, will live out their lives at James River.

___

It’s a little past 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when Tamio Holmes brings in his horse, Covert Action, from the pasture.

He scoops grain into a bucket and watches in awe as the horse eats. This equine, after all, is famous. He’s the grandson of Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

“I didn’t think he’d give me a chance, but we have really bonded,” Holmes said. “He follows me around now. And I talk to him about everything. I wish he could talk back, but I swear he can understand what I’m saying.”

The 32-year-old Holmes, who has three years remaining on a nine-year sentence for drug distribution, grew up around horses in Louisiana.

“Being with them again brings back the past,” he said. “It makes you feel at peace.”

The program is open to nonviolent offenders who have less than five years remaining on their sentence. These inmates are housed at the Work Center, which is removed from the general population. They do everything from milk cows on the dairy farm to wash dishes in the kitchen.

“This is much better,” said William Washington, a participant who is paired with Pro Trader. He also has two years left to serve of a five-year sentence for breaking and entering. “I was a little nervous at first because this is a big animal. But I’ve learned to be his leader. He’s my big friend.”

To learn how to administer simple first aid, groom and feed the horses, the inmates go to school each afternoon. Jesse Barker, a corrections officer, teaches classes through Farm Elite, a national groom education program. When they complete and pass the six- to eight-month course, the inmates will become certified grooms. Some hope to work at farms when they are released.

“It is important that we do what we can so they can have something to turn to other than their crime when they get out,” said Heather Mitchell, program coordinator at James River.

Even if they don’t pursue a horse-related career, the skills they are learning now will be beneficial, participants say. Robbie Dyer, 54, who has about two years left on his sentence for breaking and entering, said he is more confident since joining the program. Paired with Doctor Aloha, he’s no longer shy about picking out hooves or giving the horse a hug.

Harry Blaine, who is serving time for a parole violation, is the first to admit he wears his heart on his sleeve these days. He doesn’t even mind the ribbing he takes from other inmates at the Work Center.

“They harass me about it because I never thought I’d get attached to an animal,” Blaine said. “But I have. Horses just have so much love to give.”

Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com, Copyright 2007 Associated Press

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