PHOENIX – It’s late morning and the sun is already scorching as two “cowboys” in orange T-shirts and pants corral a mustang.
One is in front of the wild horse, while the other is a few steps behind the mustang as it gallops into a circular pen enclosed by a 14-foot fence topped with razor wire.
The men, felons inside the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence, have been working since 4 a.m. to break a handful of wild horses in the latest work program for the state Department of Corrections’ business arm.
The goal of the nascent program is twofold: Teach inmates a trade they can use once they get out of prison, and turn a profit for Arizona Correctional Industries.
“Any program that puts our inmates to work, gets them skills, gets them off the yard and gives them meaning is good for the prison,” Warden Lance Hetmer said. “There is an old saying in corrections that a tired inmate is a good inmate.”
ACI started planning the wild horse project in February, when the organization was looking for another inmate work outlet.
The project is among the 36 programs across the prison system that provide jobs for roughly 2,000 inmates. There are about 40,000 inmates in the entire correctional system.
Brian Radecki, ACI’s chief executive, said the program began after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approached the state looking for another home for wild horses captured on federal lands. Colorado’s and Nevada’s correctional system run a similar horse programs.
Inmates working with the horses must be held in minimum security, which means they have less than five years remaining on their sentences. They also must be nonviolent offenders with a record of good behavior, and they can’t be convicted of sex offenses.
The inmates work under the direction of Randy Helm, the ACI wild-horse supervisor.
Helm, who has worked with horses for more than 40 years, has been dubbed a horse whisperer because of his ability to calm and train the animals. He teaches the inmates how to saddle and ride the horses.
Despite the hard work and days that start before the sun rises, the wild-horse business already has a waiting list of inmates who want the jobs.
“The biggest thing the inmate gets out of this is a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. I have a stack of applicants for these jobs,” Helm said. “You can’t keep these guys away. They want to work all the time. They like being here.”
Some of the inmates work seven days a week, saying they are glad to leave their cells and be outside with the animals.
“I’m happy to have a job I love,” said Lance White, an inmate from near Lake Havasu City. “I hope to use it as a trade when I get out. ... I would do the job for free. It’s an awesome job.”
The inmates are paid, but it’s not much. White said he makes 50 cents an hour.
The program used $230,000 in startup capital, which included pen construction. But the program must eventually become self-sufficient, Radecki said. The program, which also trains burros, makes money by selling the animals to law enforcement and the public.
A burro or donkey costs $125; a horse that is saddle-broken costs up to $875.
The animals are captured on BLM property in Western states, with many coming from Nevada. They are then brought to Florence, where they are held in a large pen outside the prison.
The horses are vaccinated and marked with liquid nitrogen on the left side of their necks. They are held for roughly a month before being brought inside the prison, where they are trained.
The program got under way in April with the acquisition of 16 horses. There are now 216 horses and 100 burros. Radecki hopes to have 750 animals by early next year and 2,000 in two years.
There’s currently enough work for 20 inmates, and Radecki hopes eventually to have jobs for 30 more. More than twice that number have applied to be part of the program.
“We want to establish a work ethic for inmates and give them some experience so they can go on the outside and not come back,” Radecki said.
Justin Bonds, an inmate from Parker, said being with the horses is more than a job.
“It’s an education,” Bonds said. “We are not just coming out here and mucking pens. We are learning something.”
Chris Maiorana, an inmate from Scottsdale, agreed.
“I lost my company, my house and family,” said Maiorana, who was convicted of a drug charge. “To come out here, it lifts my spirits. ... If not for this program, I would be in the cell and be more depressed.”