Rockwall, TX (August 8, 2023) – The Rockwall County Sheriff’s Office recently piloted an innovative program with the goal to help encourage, challenge, and potentially direct inmates towards new paths upon release.
Sheriff Terry Garrett knew equine therapy programs were known to benefit disabled individuals, veterans, and others facing mental or physical challenges, therefore it was thought the same benefits might be realized for inmates. Having never included one in an official capacity before, he connected with a retired Marine friend whose sister, Paige Courtney, founded Aisling Equine Therapy in Kaufman. Those conversations eventually evolved into the pilot program.
Developing program details was a year-long process. Protocols and policies were developed through research and planning by Captain Alex Gray, Assistant Jail Administrator. An existing corral at the county jail desperately needed updates and improvements, led by volunteers with the Sheriff’s Posse. The selection process was lengthy and included evaluations, official reports, and input from Sheriff Garrett, Captain Gray, psychological screenings by Kelley Akins, LPC-S (Director of Behavioral Health for the Rockwall County Jail), and Paige, Certified Therapeutic Instructor. Criteria was strict, ensuring no participants were assigned to maximum security or had prior animal abuse charges.
The 6-week pilot program began with three male and three female inmates, each having individual weekly sessions as well as a group session. While riding is not included, participants learn to catch, halter, groom, take vitals, and relate to these beautiful but somewhat intimidating animals. Paige transports the horses beginning with her “dynamic duo”. Later, based on the week’s prior observations, she swapped out who she might bring, providing participants a clean slate to work with and the opportunity to grow more confident or experience something different.
Visiting with each inmate after each session, Paige and Kelley found feedback to be extremely positive. Kelley, who provides counseling services to the inmates, revealed significant strides made in a short period of time saying, “It is amazing to see the response. Some are scared but warm up as the sessions proceed. You see the anxiety subside, which carries over after they leave.” By example, she shared that one female inmate was very cautious and unsure of herself initially. However, as the program continued, she advanced, became more confident and at the conclusion was assisting others with haltering and other tasks.
According to Kelley, the program opens doors. Captain Gray concurs saying the program breaks down barriers and collectively provides inmates with hope! Several inmates have since expressed interest in continuing to work with horses upon their release.
Paige, having experience with veteran groups, crime victims, and others, said she found it interesting that the inmates never tried to downplay their reasons for being there. They were hungry for help and this program gave them that – and in doing so the inmates passionately asked, at the conclusion of the pilot, “How can we make sure this keeps going?”
Funded through jail commissary funds, targeted specifically for programs that benefit inmates, Sheriff Garrett states, “This program has sustainability! You don’t see that with every rehabilitation program.” The results of the pilot program are now being reviewed but the office is hopeful to restart a formal program in the coming months and is considering how this might grow, perhaps to be included with probationary periods.
Through this program, Paige says the inmates are learning about horses; however, more importantly, are learning about themselves. They come to appreciate that horses do not care about your background, rather they are intuitive and simply pick up on your attitude and position. This realization leads to understanding how their own behavior impacts others around them. And perhaps they are stronger people than they thought.
By Melanie Mayfield, Blue Ribbon News contributing writer.