MS. REBECCA SHEIR
When it comes to the guy we'll meet next, I have to say, his day-to-day life would probably feel pretty familiar to Geraldine Buckley. That's because Michael Jones is in prison, serving a 15-year sentence for burglary and robbery. But Jones isn't your average inmate. He grew up in the middle class suburbs of Westminster, Md. He went to church. And he never had to scrounge for money or a meal.
MR. MICHAEL JONES
I was on top of the world before I came to prison. I had never gone to bed hungry. I had never gone to bed dirty. I was very blessed, very fortunate.
Fast forward to today and, as Robbie Feinberg tells us, Jones is starting to feel blessed again, for the first time in ages.
MR. ROBBIE FEINBERG
At 18, Michael Jones thought his future was bright. He was heading off to a Division One college. He had a wrestling scholarship and he had his family's support. But once Jones arrived at school things fell apart. He got involved in drugs and he started selling them to make some money, and then he started using. Before long, Jones was robbing people, committing burglaries. And by the age of 26, he ended up in prison.
When you're going through it you're really just going through the motions, you know, it doesn't impact you one way or another. But then, after a period of time, you wake up and you see these cylinder walls and this drab paint, these metal bunks, and, oh my goodness, what in the world happened?
Jones says he didn't know the answer to that question. So he took a look at his life. And he asked himself, how did I end up here? And where am I going? All of that has led him here, to Second Chances Farm in Sykesville, Md., about 30 miles west of Baltimore. Jones arrived at Second Chances about two months ago with four other inmates. They work here seven days a week, taking care of the four retired racehorses on the farm. The inmates will spend six months here, learning the ins and outs of horse grooming, as a way to develop new skills before leaving prison.
Conni Swenson is the program coordinator for Second Chances and she says grooming isn't easy for the inmates. You can't just walk up to a horse and start brushing it. You've got to work with the horse and get to know it.
MS. CONNI SWENSON
They learn how to open themselves up and find the most patient part of themselves, the most compassionate part of themselves. The animal has to learn to respect them and that takes time, and that takes a certain way for people to act.
Second Chances was launched in 2009, as a joint program of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The program isn't just here for the inmates, though. Swenson says that without Second Chances, these horses may not be around, either.
These are not your Kentucky Derby, high-level horses. So what happens to these horses is they're very vulnerable, because once they can't make any money anymore, they've lost all their value for their owners.
Swenson says that without any racing value, these horses are normally sold and sent to Mexico, where they're killed for their meat. But she says Second Chances gives these horses a new purpose, as teachers.
Out on the farm, Michael Jones is relaxed, with a wide grin across his face. He softly pats his horse, a thoroughbred named Greek Ruler, and feeds him a few blades of grass. Jones is gentle with him, carefully lifting up each hoof.
Just make sure he's shining, like a diamond. He misses that attention, that limelight. He's a thoroughbred, he's a racer.
Jones says that he sees a little bit of himself in his horse. They're both stubborn, a little childish, stuck in their ways. But Jones says that once they both got a little guidance they've learned and changed.
When I first started grooming him and picking his hooves, he wasn't having none of that. Well, I’m his handler. I'm his groomer. Why is he giving me the hard way to go? And that's when Ms. Swenson, you know, put me down with that, you know, you have to earn their trust. And like the day, actually, today was the first day that from beginning to end of grooming him, there was no hiccups, no hiccups, none.
Jones has changed, too. He says that in the past he'd only think about himself and his problems. He blamed the world for where he'd ended up, but out here, Jones has 1000 pound animal to take care of. He can't goof off or blame anyone else. He's got to focus on the job at hand.
Those things that I'd be contemplating and dwelling on and, you know, I'd come out here, they're out the window. I mean, because right now this horse has this particular injury, this attention needs to be given to this horse and it raised my awareness and it prevents me from making that lack of judgment, that lack of thinking at that crucial moment.
That awareness is something Jones wants to take into the future. When he gets out of prison, Jones says he wants to travel, maybe drive a truck. And he wants to try out a second career in relaxation therapy. Those types of plans, they're new for him and he knows that without Second Chances he probably wouldn't even be thinking about them.
I would either be dead or be locked up for an extremely long amount of time if it wasn't for this program. I wish I didn't have to learn it this way. Believe me, I really wish I didn't have to learn it this way. But I'm also smart enough to know I wouldn't have learned it any other way.
What may be the toughest challenge students like Jones face is making sure they don't end up back in prison once they've left. More than 40 percent of Maryland inmates are back in prison within three years. But the Second Chances graduates may have a better shot. Eleven inmates have graduated from the program since 2009, and none have ended up back behind bars. But Jones still has a long way to go. First, he needs to keep coming out here for the next few months to care for these horses. And then he needs to take the grooming certification test and pass it. And then there's his parole hearing in about six months, where he hopes to finally get released from prison and begin a new life. I'm Robbie Feinberg.
You can see photos of Jones and his horse and learn more about Second Chances on our website, metroconnection.org.
Time for a break, but when we get back, starting a new church from scratch.
MR. KEVIN LUM
I kinda felt a little bit awkward as, you know, the white kid going into this neighborhood to say, here I am, I've got a new church for you.
Plus, the fight over a Muslim group's potential move to rural Maryland.
MS. CHAUN HIGHTOWER
The idea of having a really huge community being built out here didn't seem to fit in with the landscape.
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins and the conservation of natural resources.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.