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Work with Horses Helps Rehabilitate Maine Prisoners
11/15/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Since the early 1980s, research has shown that interacting with dogs and other pets is good for your physical and emotional health. Animal-assisted psychotherapy can help kids and adults overcome trauma and improve social and emotional functioning. Maine has recently joined the growing list of states using the adoption and care of horses to help rehabilitate prison inmates. Jay Field paid a visit this morning to ShelterMe, a new equine therapy program at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

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Work with Horses Helps Rehabilitate Maine Prisoner
Originally Aired: 11/15/2012 5:30 PM

Prison therapy horses

The newly-renovated horse barn sits on the slope of a hill, overlooking the 222-bed, minimum security prison. Bolduc's mission is to prepare inmates to re-enter society. Prisoners with three years or less left on their sentences - who've served their time and stayed out of trouble - get to come here as a reward for their good behavior.

Chris (above), who didn't want to give his last name, says he's already learned a lot from the horse he's leading through a pasture next to the barn. "A thousand pound animal that, if it gets in its head that it wants to do something, it's going to do it, whether you want it to or not," he says. "So you've got to be a little understanding of him. I wouldn't do any other job here."
Prison therapy horses
Bradley (in photo right, with Lincoln), one of two horses taken in so far as part of the ShelterMe program, is being nursed to better health, prepped for eventual adoption, by the burly inmate who's spent much of his sentence behind the walls and razor wire of the nearby Maine State Prison.

"I'm actually hoping this will lead into something when I get out, as far as working with horses and other animals, farm animals mostly," he says.

Work - a good, stable job to go to every day - is a key piece of the puzzle that an inmate must have in place to succeed on the outside, says Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections. Caring for animals, be they dogs or horses, Ponte says, gives inmates basic skills that are transferable.

"Getting up and going to work everyday, for some offenders, is a new concept," he says. "So that alone is teaching skills to get them back into society, to get them ready."

Many inmates, though, need to devlop more than basic work skills. One of the fundamental, developmental and psychological deficits for many felons - especially those convicted of violent crimes - is a lack of empathy for others. Randall Thomas, the farm manager at Bolduc Correctional Facility, says horses have a mystical ability to nurture that learning process.

"People get angry in prison a lot and they go to the horse and they just calm down," he says.
Prison therapy horses
Officials with the Department of Corrections tried to prevent journalists from asking prisoners in the ShelterMe program what offenses they had been incarcerated for. Chris, the inmate we spoke with, declined to discuss his criminal past, but left little doubt that the bond he's been developing with Bradley is changing his overall approach to relationships with others.

"If you don't feel good or you're tired, it doesn't matter - you still have to come feed him, clean his feet, groom him, exercise him," he says. "You can't just leave him in his stall. It's very akin to having a child."

Chris and one other inmate make a $150 a week stipend to take care of Bradley and another horse named Lincoln. The ShelterMe program, the first of its kind in Maine, plans to take in other horses in the coming months and can accommodate as many as six animals at a time.

Photos by Jay Field.




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