Dozens of prisoners in Florence, Arizona, just can’t wait to get up for work in the morning.
The minimum-security prisoners pair up with mustangs and burros at Florence State Prison for a unique job opportunity. In an effort to protect local rangelands and teach men behind bars a new trade, the Arizona DOC partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to form the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP).
From the stall to the training facility, prisoners bond with the horses and train them to be fit for adoption. The men work one-on-one with the horses under the supervision of Randy Helm, a former narcotics detective and experienced rancher. Unlike Helm, most of these men have very little experience training animals.
It’s a learning experience for everyone. That’s the magic of it.
“I never even had a puppy,” Dashonte Al-Wakil told The Arizona Republic.
Dashonte is one of many prisoners-turned-horse trainers who work daily to break these headstrong animals. Granted, the acronym is a bit misleading—WHIP trainers are careful to use gentle methods—and that process does not benefit just the horses.
“What I learn from my horses is patience, love and caring, and trust,” says Dashonte. “When these horses first come in, their problem is trust. When I first come [sic] into prison, that was my problem.”
Prisoners spend around four months training their horses. That process requires trust, and trust takes time.
Eventually, as the horses experience transformation, the prisoners do as well. “There’s a process to get there and you can’t take short cuts,” Helm said. He emphasized the value in watching the project through to completion. Men leave the program with a sense of accomplishment, having gained new skills, a solid work ethic, and self-confidence.
“We ask a horse to yield one thing at a time, not be rideable immediately, but to be better every day,” Helm continued. “We let these horses prove themselves; why can’t we let these inmates prove themselves?”
Over fifty participants have been released since 2012; so far, none of them have returned to prison. While the program is young, a zero-percent recidivism rate is significant. It is evidence of the enduring impact of constructive prison culture. By helping horses change their behavior, WHIP trainers learn that real change is possible. A changed life is like a fresh start—a new life.
The program has brought forth other kinds of new life, too. In 2014, they welcomed the first foal ever born into the program.
They named him Justice.
Prison Fellowship helps advocate for a constructive prison culture according to biblical principles of restorative justice. Constructive culture promotes attitudes and behaviors that prisoners can carry with them upon release, allowing them to live productively and purposefully in their communities. To learn more about how you can support a constructive prison culture in your state, click here.