GOOCHLAND COUNTY, VIRGINIA
— On a cold morning in December, Tamio Holmes pulls his truck up to a barn at the James River Work Center in rural Virginia.
There to teach a group of men how to shoe a horse, Holmes, himself a former inmate, approaches student inmates at this working prison farm located in Goochland County in rural Virginia.
The six-month program called Greener Pastures
has two primary goals: provide a safe place for retired race horses, and train non-violent, short-term offenders to care for them.
Holmes learned to be a farrier, someone who takes care of horses' hooves, in the same program while serving eight years at the prison.
His own teacher, veteran farrier Bill Lane, is one of many dedicated professionals who volunteers his time at the prison, and says it’s all about putting your faith into somebody, teaching them what you know and then letting them develop their own style.
“It’s hard, dirty work,” he said, but insists that it is immensely rewarding.
For Holmes, enrolling in the program was a chance to open himself up.
“You learn trust, honesty and loyalty,” he said, adding that it was after his experience with Greener Pastures that he made his decision. “This is what I’m going to do and this is what I want to do.”
Now a free man, Holmes often returns to the prison to share what he learned.
“I want the boys to understand [that] you have to have confidence in yourself,” he said. “Most importantly what I teach them is you have to have a good work ethic. You get out of it what you put into it. I mean, it’s not just about shoeing, but it’s about multiple other things that you can do in life.”
A collaboration between the Virginia Department of Corrections and the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
— the world's largest equine sanctuary devoted to the rescue, retirement, rehabilitation and retraining of thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack — Greener Pastures is unique.
Every day, inmates in the program feed and groom their assigned horses and check them for injuries. The training also prepares them for jobs once they’re released from prison.
Among the 22 thoroughbreds being cared for at the barn is Covert Action, grandson of the legendary 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, who was dubbed "America’s Super Horse.”
He's the horse Holmes started with in the program, which he says changed his life.
“Since I’ve been in this horse program I’ve met some really, really good people,” he says. “I attribute it to them and I attribute it especially to dealing [with], and being around, these horses.”
Warden Harris Diggs, who’s responsible for the program at the James River Work Center, knew nothing about horses when he inherited the program from the previous warden.
"It was interesting to see the relationship that the offenders had with the horses and the relationship the horses had with the offenders," says Diggs.
"The offenders had a nurturing atmosphere about themselves. These horses were thoroughbred race horses. Nobody wanted them any longer and I said, ‘you know, there is some similarity between the horses’ plight and the offenders’ plight.' I could see them bond and I could understand why the bonding was there.”
That bond is evident as the nine inmates lovingly feed, groom and check the horses for injuries.
Ben Cheston says being around the horses and taking care of them made him feel like a human being again, “because when you’re incarcerated for a long time, you lose that.”
He hopes to use the farrier skills he’s learned in prison to get a job in the field upon his release.
“A lot of guys that come into the system relied on crime for money or they never had a job or they had trouble with jobs because of drugs or whatever it may be,” he said, “and so this opens another door for them.”
Kevin Jones, who graduated from the horse program in September of this year, hopes to work for veterinarian Tom Newton, another regular volunteer at the prison, once he’s released in 2015.
“We all need people in our lives,” said Jones. “Sometimes we don’t take advantage of the help people are offering us. This is one chance and I’m going to take the help that someone’s willing to put their neck out for me.”
Lamare Jennings, 37, has been incarcerated since 2006. He is scheduled to be released from prison in April 2014 and also hopes to apply his newly-acquired skills once he’s released.
“I’ve grown up a lot since being incarcerated," he said. "My outlook on life now is more positive. My future seems to be more positive. This program is a second chance for horses, but it’s a second chance for me also.”
“It's a very powerful connection and most of these men have never experienced that before,” said Anne Tucker, president of the James River Chapter of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. “That may be part of what gives them this new sense of who they are.”
Diggs hopes what the inmates learn in the program will have a similarly positive impact on the relationships the men have with their families, and he is happy with his decision to have allowed Tamio Holmes to return to the prison to teach the inmates.
“We have to take calculated risks, and that was a calculated risk I was willing to take,” he said. “And it has worked out wonderfully, because they can now see that they can grow, and that the system that incarcerated them is also willing to give them a second chance.”