Program pairs retired race horses with prison inmates

        

When you think of a prison, you probably think of a dark, ominous place. One with high walls and a barbwire fence designed to keep prisoners inside.

For the most part, you'd be right. However, a prison in Ulster County also has a horse farm designed to help inmates get out.

What happens to horses after they've run their last race? Retirement plans for thoroughbreds - even former stars at Saratoga - can often be uncertain. However, for the last 35 years, some have gone to prison. More specifically, the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County. It just so happens an 80-acre horse farm is maintained there.

After their stressful early years, the horses go there - and learn how to live a more peaceful life.

It's a lesson not lost on the inmates who care for them.

'So they go out there, they care for the horse, they start thinking about the horse, they start worrying about the horse - and now they're not thinking about themselves,' explained Facility Superintendent Catherine Jacobsen.

She says a lot of the inmates in Wallkill come from downstate, big cities, the Bronx, where their only experience with horses is a mounted patrol.

So when they come here, and find themselves on a farm working with these 1,000 pound animals away from their usual routine - something happens.

'The men change because now they're caring for something,' explained Jacobsen

That includes Kevin Goodman.

'Whoever said change ain't good - they're lyin'. Change is good,' he said.

Goodman is serving time for drug offenses - and he's been incarcerated before.

He's been working with the horses for over a year now. He says it's taught him patience and how to care about something - other than himself.

'I took on responsibility - you know, 49 horses and they're my buddies and I just got to come out here and make sure they're alright,' he explained.

There's fear at first. He admits that. So does fellow inmate John Hernandez.

'Just a big animal and just worry about them trampling over me,' explained Hernandez.

That doesn't last long. Johns already told his girlfriend and daughters his new plan is to run his own horse farm someday.

'It's a good feeling to care for something else and somebody else appreciates you bringing them food and stuff,' he said.

'Those are things that they don't get on the street that they're getting the opportunities here,' noted Kelsey Kober, the farm manager and vocational instructor.

Part of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Wallkill's farm is the reason she studied equine science in college - to make a difference here for the animals and inmates.

We encourage them to have respect here. We encourage them to have a better work ethic. A lot of them come here and they've never worked a day in their life,' noted Kober.

The inmate program is appropriately titled 'Second Chances' and many of the inmates who've participated have not been back to jail after their release.

'When I first started, I was scared to death to come out here,' admitted William Douglas.

The 55-year-old man was in the program almost three years before his release in 2015.

He says the horses gave him purpose - made him feel important and needed.

'I didn't care if it was below zero weather, I didn't care if it was raining. I was out here,' he pointed out.

Douglas has stayed out of trouble. He's been too busy for that. Talk about work ethic. He now puts in 70 hours a week at his factory job.

William is just one of the success stories to come out of Walkill's Second Chances program over the last 35 years. It was a first of its kind program that has been expanded cross country.

Today, there are eight facilities connected with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation - giving Second Chances to all involved. Leo Bonilla, 36, is still new to it.

'When I first came out. I went into the pen, I said, 'Oh, I got this, everything's all right.' Then the horse started brushing on me and I said, 'Oh, somebody come get the horse away,' said Bonilla.

Chances are good for Bonilla - that when he's released, he'll only come back to visit the friends he's just started to make.

MORE INFORMATION: Wallkill Correctional Facility and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation equine programs