Rehabilitation Program Pairs Prisoners With Wild Horses: ‘It’s Life Changing’

The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. There are many reasons behind that grim statistic, including stubbornly high recidivism rates: more than half the people who leave prison end up back in jail within three years. For many, prison is not about rehabilitation.

One prison in the Arizona desert is taking an unorthodox approach to tackling the issue. The Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence is the latest facility in the country to start a wild horse program – teaching inmates to tame wild mustangs fresh off the American plains.

There are currently about a dozen men working in the program in Florence, which started last spring. The men work their way up from cleaning stalls to working in a pen with a horse, to finally riding it in cactus-strewn fields far outside the prison fences. It takes about four months of daily work to tame a wild mustang, and the inmates work with the same animals for the full stretch, from the day the horses arrive to the day they are adopted. This allows the inmates to form bonds with the animals, and to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from taking the task from start to finish. The effects can be lasting.

“I’ve had a couple guys who have tried to waive their early release so they could stay and work with the horses longer,” said Randy Helm, the horse trainer who runs the program. “It’s life changing for some of them.”

In fact, in similar programs across the country, only about 15 percent of the people who graduate the programs end up back in prison.

Fusion spent just a few days with the men in Florence, and we saw how profoundly the men connected with the animals and each other. The above video tells that story – see a photo gallery of the men and the horses here.

The horses are part of a program run by the the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in an attempt to keep the number of mustangs in the wild in check. In 1971, congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which declared wild horses and burros to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” and protects them from “capture, branding, harassment, or death.” It also puts the BLM in charge of managing the wild herds, which began growing after the law passed, keeping the animals and the land they graze at a healthy level.

The agency estimates that as of February 2013, 40,605 wild horses and burros roam the lands they manage. In order to keep the population stable, the BLM rounds up and boards the mustangs. That gets expensive, so the agency also auctions off the wild horses, or tames them so they can be adopted. That’s where the inmates come in.

The first Wild Horse Inmate Program started in Cañon City, Colorado in 1986. Now there are six, and about 140 inmates go through the programs annually. Some 280 mustangs are tamed through the programs each year, eventually getting adopted by families, ranchers and even government agencies like the US Border Patrol. It costs about $2,800 to adopt a fully trained horse. That money goes back into running the prison programs.