As I write this the Annual Conference of the Association of Prison Officers are meeting in Sligo and some of the issues that have arisen were a subject of a news report headline. While I listened, I was further reinforced in my view that there are few things in life worse than the prospect of losing one’s freedom. Imprisonment removes a person from familiar surroundings and the people they share those with. It deprives them of their ability to determine the course of their day and make choices about their movements, their activities, and how they use their time.
Rules are made by strangers and the surroundings are shared with strangers. The fear of the unknown looms large and there is a definite conception shared by all, that prisons are not safe places.
Good News Story
Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon is a closed medium-security prison for adult males. Last week it was the subject of another news headline story and a very positive one.
The Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee officially opened the new ‘Horses of Hope’ Equine Centre at the prison. The scheme is a result of an innovative partnership, spearheaded by Jonathan Irwin, between the Irish Prison Service and the Horse Racing Industry and is designed to train prisoners in horse husbandry. This will enable them to learn practical skills which could assist in securing them employment in the equine industry post-release.
Many years ago, Mr. Irwin witnessed first-hand an equine correctional programme in the USA which is premised on the natural affinity between a human and a horse. Evidence from equine programmes internationally demonstrates that people in custody can learn practical skills which can be leveraged for future employment opportunities, foster responsibility, and build confidence and self-belief while also developing compassion through the care of animals.
The equine centre is located on grounds adjacent to the prison and is the first of its kind in Europe.
Speaking at the opening Minister McEntee said, “As Minister for Justice I am committed to preventing and reducing reoffending in our communities, but also helping to divert offenders away from a life of crime. Rehabilitation, training, and education for those who are in prison is key to that. “
The Minister acknowledged the contribution of the equine industry and said they had an important role to play in the rehabilitation of the prisoners involved.
Giving and Receiving
Over a period of 12 weeks, groups of inmates work with the horses, learning horse care skills such as grooming, stable management, and first aid. They are awarded a certificate at the end of the course.
Similar initiatives have been launched in Australia and the United States, where a real-life programme in Carson City, Nevada inspired the 2019 film The Mustang, in which a violent prisoner finds redemption after learning how to train a wild horse.
Prisoners who learn to care for horses can go on to make valuable contributions to their communities on release and in some cases gain employment in the equine industry, according to the Irish government
One of the prisoners interviewed said he felt he now had a reason for getting up in the mornings and looked forward to going out to the stables.
Another said “It’s relaxing. You can’t just come out here and expect to go into the stable to a horse that doesn’t know you just thinking he’s going to be alright with you. You have to gain their trust… at the end of it, if we do well in this, there could be a job opening at a stud farm or other places around the country.”
Having a task which they enjoy, and a meaningful purpose is important, but even more significant is the interaction with a living creature, and care for something outside themselves which is dependent on them.
Crime always involves hurting someone else and only varies with regard to the degree of pain and loss that is inflicted. Hopefully looking out for the needs of the horses will foster in the prisoner a better attitude towards others and help them to see life in a post-prison world in a much more positive
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan