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A Second Chance For Inmates And Horses In Maryland

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Michael Jones feeds and grooms the horse seven days a week.
Robbie Feinberg
Michael Jones feeds and grooms the horse seven days a week.

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. He started selling them to make some money, and then he started using. Before long, Jones was robbing people and committing burglaries. And by the age of 26, he ended up in prison.

"I guess when you're just going through the motions, it doesn't impact you one way or another," Jones says. "But after a period of time, you wake up and you see these cylinder walls, this drab paint, these metal bunks. 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 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. They'll end up spending six months here, developing new skills before they leave prison.

Bringing together inmates and horses

Second Chances was launched in 2009 as a joint program of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. Conni Swenson, the program coordinator for Second Chances, says grooming isn't easy for the inmates. She says they've got to be patient and open a new part of themselves.

"The animal has to learn to respect them," Swenson says. "That takes time, and that takes a certain way for people to act."

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," Swenson says. "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." 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.

The power of these horses is obvious out on the farm. Out there, Michael Jones is relaxed, with a wide grin across his face. As he grooms his horse, a thoroughbred named Greek Ruler, Jones gently pats him and talks to him, like a friend.

"When I started grooming him and picking his hooves, he was having none of that," Jones says. But Jones says that after working with Greek Ruler and gaining his trust, it gradually became easier. "Actually, today was the first day that from beginning to end of grooming him, there were no hiccups. None," Jones says.

Now, Jones can see how he's changed since he started the program. He says that in the past, he'd only think about himself and his problems. But on the farm, Jones has a thousand-pound animal to take care of. He can't goof off or blame anyone else. He's learned to be aware of his situation and focus on the job at hand, which he says has helped him make the right choices since he started.

New opportunities

That awareness is something Jones wants to take into the future. When he gets out of prison, Jones says he wants to travel and drive a truck. And he wants to try out a second career in relaxation therapy. Those types of plans are new for him, and he says that without Second Chances, he probably wouldn't even be thinking about them.

"I would probably be dead, or be locked up for an extremely long amount of time if it wasn't for this program," Jones says. "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 smart enough to know I wouldn't have learned it any other way."

But Jones and the other students here still have a long way to go. They need to keep coming out here over the next few months, pass their grooming certification test, and then ultimately get released from prison. But what may be their toughest challenge 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.

[Music: "Running On Faith (Karaoke Version) (In the Style of Eric Clapton) by Goldsound Karaoke from In The Style of Eric Clapton]

Photos: Second Chances Farm

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