Inmates and Animals

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Courtesy of

The Colorado Department of Corrections’ equine management program—an important and distinctive element in its economic and rehabilitative portfolio—was set in motion by federal legislation.[1] In 1937, the Department of the Interior promulgated the Taylor Grazing Act, a law to help prevent overgrazing and soil deterioration of the public lands in the west.  At that point, thousands of wild horse and burros were rounded up and put into corrals all over the Plains and Rocky Mountain states.[2] Private citizens could adopt the wild horses, but the demand was not enough to adopt the thousands suddenly made available. Many of the animals were sent to slaughterhouses for meat because they were costing the government thousands of dollars to feed. Velma Johnston, a Reno, Nevada secretary, saw these animals being slaughtered and started a letter-writing campaign in 1950 to stop the killing of the horses and burros.[3] As a result of the ensuing public outcry, the Wild Horse Annie Act was passed in January of 1959. It set the stage for the wild horse adoption program for the Colorado Correctional Industries.[4]  The Colorado Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) was then established in 1986 as a joint venture between the Bureau of Land Management and the state’s Department of Corrections.[5]

This program provided jobs for offenders—but they were tough jobs. Prisoners selected for the taming of the wild mustangs started their mornings at seven and did not finish until three in the afternoon. The inmates went through rigorous study in animal husbandry, basic veterinary skills, record keeping, and horse shoeing.[6] All of the inmates who worked with horses were required to complete 180 hours of classroom preparation, as they still do, before they are allowed to jump into a corral with wild animals. After these inmates have learned the basics of how to care, train, and tame the animals, they first come into direct contact with wild equines, working in pairs. The inmates strap on shin guards, hop over the fences into the corral with the wild and rowdy mustangs, and go to work.[7] Naturally, offenders chosen for this program are often nervous with wild, thousand-pound beasts, because some suffer broken bones broken in the encounter every year. They know from their 180 hours of class that they have to be confident with the wild mustangs. They also know they cannot be too aggressive or pushy with these feral animals, or they will end bruised or worse. But when inmates are injured, they return to the same work as soon as they are healed. After a sixty-to-ninety-day period of breaking and gentling, the horses are ready for adoption. The program sells to preapproved private owners as well as to other government agencies such as border patrol, which values the wild mustangs for their sturdy frames and natural ability to operate in mountainous terrain.


Beginning of the wild horse program

The details of the WHIP’s start-up in Cañon City are instructive about the interagency cooperation and offender rehabilitation.  In the aftermath of the 1959 Wild Horse Annie Act, the National Organization of Wild American Horses donated four wild horses to the Department of Corrections. These horses were used at the Juniper Valley Farm, where they assisted in taking care of the cows to provide meat and dairy for the prisons.[8] Draft animals were brought into service because trucks previously being used were more expensive to drive and maintain cattle then horses were. Thus, at the start, not only did the inmates break horses, but some of the same horses also worked on the prison ranch. Within one year, the program grew from eight inmates working on taming thirty-three wild horse for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to thirty inmates working on almost 360 wild horses.[9] Eventually women offenders were also involved, but only briefly.  In September of 1986 female offenders working at Juniper Valley were given six wild foals to tame. The women eventually transitioned into taming full-grown wild mustangs, as did the men of the prison. Two years into the Colorado Wild Horse-Inmate Program it had already been  recognized nationally and internationally for the success it had achieved.[10] Unfortunately, in 1987 the women of the Department of Correction had lost their spot on the Juniper Valley Farm because there were not enough supervisors for the women prisoners.[11]

In 1992 WHIP became an adoption site for the BLM and horses.[12] In 1996, the wild horse program brought back women inmates to help tame the wild mustangs. Often female offenders have helped with the finishing touches of the halter and saddle training because they have been perceived as less aggressive with the horses.  The success of the Colorado wild horse program had by1997 led other state penitentiaries—in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and California—to consider at starting analogous programs, not only for economic reasons but also because the recidivism rate for inmates in WHIP is much lower than the national average.[13] The program expanded dramatically as the twenty-first century began.  By the year 2000, more than 2,000 horses had been adopted, and the horses continued to be tamed at a rate of almost 200 a year.[14] Further, by 2001 the WHIP program had expanded to tame wild burros that also would eventually be put up for adoption. The Wild Horse-Inmate Program in 2004 had become so widely known and well-respected that newly available animals were exhibited in a horse show, and the horses who took first and second place medals were auctioned off to owners for $300 to $500 more than the $1000 basic purchase price for a saddle-trained animal.[15]

The continuing success of the program drew national attention. In 2009, a documentary film produced by Point Grey Pictures examined the role of the inmates and the horses, showing how these two species, imprisoned in different ways, might have roles in each other’s lives.[16] Inmates had become so good at saddle-training that the demand was higher for these rideable horses than halter-trained horses.[17] More trained horses now left the prison program to work all over the United States, from protecting the borders to herding cattle and livestock. In contrast, burros from the Bureau of Land Management were not very successful, even though they had also been part of the WHIP program for almost fifteen years. In hopes of changing this trend, in 2013 Colorado Correctional Industries launched a new training program to make the burros more appealing. The burros were trained by the inmates to pull carts and sleds around the Juniper Valley Farm to showcase how they might be to helpful to potential purchasers with day to day chores in horse maintenance and other agricultural work.[18]

The immediate economic benefit of WHIP, while real, is minor.  The prison does not realize large profits from the wild horse program. As inmates train horses, the prison accrues only a 100- to 150-dollar profit at the sale of each animal.[19] Nonetheless, the longer-term economic effect for the prison lies in rehabilitation.  Inmates participating in WHIP have a recidivism rate of thirty-four percent compared to the national average of sixty-eight percent.[20] This low rate is important to taxpayers because they will likely not be paying for the same inmate to be imprisoned again. Meanwhile, lower crime rates are an economic benefit to any community, and low recidivism rates indicate prisons are doing what they are supposed to do—functioning as corrections facilities rather than as holding facilities.

Some of the inmates released after participation in the WHIP program buy horses they have themselves trained and tamed.  These animals help their now-owners start new jobs once out of prison. One inmate, Randy DeVaney planned in 2001 to use some of the horses he has trained to start a horse riding program for underprivileged youth.[21] Others have planned to use the horses they have trained to start a ranch or work for a ranch in Colorado. The economic benefit of the WHIP program thus extends to prisoners’ work after their release into society.  Men and women rehabilitated in the wild horse program emerge from correctional facilities and contribute a good or service, and they are buying others’ products and services as they earn income in horse-related jobs. Meanwhile, like their trainers, the tamed mustangs now play roles all across the West.


Fishing for profits, fishing for skills

The Colorado Department of Corrections offers a further regionally-inspired program with economic and rehabilitative effects similar to the positive outcomes of WHIP.  Fly fishing has been a very lucrative niche market since the 1950s, when fly rods, reels, and flies could be bought through magazine ads. Then as now, fine fly rods are often made in small shops, as a kind of modern cottage industry, and fly rod makers who handcraft their own products can make a very good living.  In Cañon City, a rod-making and fly-tying program was started when an inmate named Jeremy Loyd petitioned the Colorado Correctional Industries Committee and made the suggestion. The DOC initiated the fishing rod shop and flying tying shop in 2007. Now, employment there is a sought-after job in the inmate community.[22] Only eight inmates are hired for the fishing rod program and ten inmates in the fly tying part of the program. Each fly rod, with its intricately designed handles and eyelets attached by thread, takes eighty to 100 hours to make.[23]  Such a rod sells for from fifty to 800 dollars because of the time it takes to make and the high level of skill in this craft. Money made from the rods is used to pay the inmates, to buy new supplies, and to fund the prison.

The prison meanwhile offers a related program in which ten inmates tie all sorts of fishing flies from small midges to large grasshoppers.[24] Inmates working is this aspect of the DOC sport fishing shop can make anywhere from five to twenty flies an hour, each selling from one to five dollars each. The money made in the fly tying shop goes to the materials, inmates, and—again—back to the prison. The program is useful to participating inmates as a saleable skill in the outside world.   They are now able to make the difficult bamboo rod for which skilled craftsmen are often paid more than $3,000.  Such a dignified and lucrative craft seems preferable to a life of crime.


Inmates and dogs

The Inmate-Dog Training Program, the second of the Cañon programs connecting offenders and animals, has been similarly recognized as practical and successful, yet it remains an underutilized method of therapy and rehabilitation for inmates. Among a multitude of benefits, the most powerful effect on the inmate from the experience of training an abused canine arises from the restorative emotion and empathy required. Modeled after similar programs at other state correctional facilities, the Inmate-Dog Training Program at both the men’s facility in Cañon City and the woman’s facility in Pueblo began in October of 2002.[25] The program is self-sufficient, as the prisons funding context requires—an unfortunate reality for this program and others of its kind. Private owners can send in their dogs to be temperament trained for a base price of $600 dollars for four weeks, and $100 dollars for each week after that.[26] Dogs from the Humane Society of Colorado are also rescued into the program and can be adopted for $550. Training of the dogs mainly consists of socialization. The dogs live in the cell with their inmate-handler and are exposed to other dogs in the program as well as to other inmates. In some cases, an inmate may train a canine to be a specialized service dog. In 2004, inmate Walter Hall trained a service dog to help Florence Police Corporal Toby Bethel, wounded in the line of duty. Hall trained the dog in a wheelchair to simulate similar tasks and situations with which the dog would have to help his eventual master.[27]

In this and like programs in correction facilities, dogs have meanwhile been proven to be an effective source of therapy for individuals with mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety. At Centennial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, therapy dogs interact with severally mentally ill inmates. The animals act as a “bright spot for inmates suffering from acute depression.”[28] While little research has gone into the benefits of training a dog to human handlers, especially incarcerated persons, the anecdotal evidence from inmate-trainers is compelling. From a practical standpoint, inmates learning animal training develop a vocational skill they can use for life outside of prison. Again practically, from the prison’s administrative point of view, the Inmate-Dog Training Program also acts as a source of revenue. Most importantly if less tangibly, inmate-trainers receive intrinsic rewards, powerful tools of rehabilitation. Training a dog is no easy task and takes time. Inmates selected for the program must work hard to educate themselves on the behavior of dogs. “The program “keeps [them] out of trouble” because participation is both a responsibility and a privilege.[29] In the nature of the program, dog trainers obtain a certain kind of freedom unavailable to other inmates even as they and their charges live within the confines of the penitentiary. The experience of caring for another living being, an oddity in prison, teaches the inmate-trainers compassion for themselves. The dogs show “a whole lot of emotions [offenders are] not able to express” such as gentleness, peacefulness, and love. Trainer-inmates experience an unprejudiced and unconditional source of companionship. Furthermore, the inmates must return the animals’ patience and gentleness, necessary characteristics in nonverbal communication to temperamental canines.[30]

The greatest rehabilitative effect from the inmate-canine training program ensues from inmates’ work with dogs rescued from animal shelters. These animals salvaged from situations of violence and neglect sometimes share some of the same mental health disorders as their inmates, especially in women’s facilities. Many inmates were born into analogous conditions, resulting in post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, and other disorders. Of inmates at the women’s facility, “almost 85% have been abused and abandoned, much like these dogs.”[31] Before any formal training can start, the inmate must first gain the broken animal’s trust. Again, affection, patience, and empathy form this relationship, the process of which is strongly therapeutic for both the animal and inmate. The dogs are eventually adopted out, so that, as they are aware, the inmates’ work has a positive impact outside the walls of prison at the same time it has helped many “to feel again,” to recover lost emotions.[32]

Yet the inmate-dog training program has drawbacks, as indeed does the related Wild Horse Inmate Program. Only a select few inmates who are already in good standing within the prison get to participate and reap the benefits of either opportunity. Offenders who need rehabilitation and therapy the most may not be qualified or accepted into the programs. Funding serves as a primary limiting factor for the programs, and others like it. Although the canine training program, like WHIP, is self-sustaining, it too is at the mercy of the outside economy, so its future is uncertain.

From a philosophical perspective, the relationship between the inmate and dog, or inmate and horse is ironically similar to the relationship between corrections system and offender. The wild horse has “never known the constraint of a rope, never lived in a corral. They’ve never not been free.”[33] Both are deemed threats to their environment, both literally and figuratively. An authoritative body removes them from the rest of society. The institution takes the natural liberty from offender and the bronco—or the lost dog—and incarcerates them. From the Foucaultian perspective, both WHIP and canine training for inmates are foremost jobs in prison, and to Foucault “work is defined, with isolation, as an agent of carceral transformation.”[34] The daily work for inmates in the program, though rehabilitative, is arguably another extension of control from the penal system. The training of rescue dogs and wild horses mimics what Foucault theorizes as the purpose of modern incarceration: institutionalized control of the body and soul in an attempt at normalization.[35] Wild horses, like the modern prisoner, are rounded up, broken of their natural ways, and trained to be submissive to the commands of a human, the authoritative figure.  Dogs are more willing participants in their own confinement, but they are no less subject to the management of human handlers.  The wild mustang especially, though, is the antithesis of the incarcerated creature. Free from societal control, the mustang roams the western frontier. For both wild animal or inmate, “it is not so much his act [but] his life that is relevant in characterizing him.”[36] WHIP and the dog training program at Cañon City, for all their usefulness for inmates and their custodians, stand as a reminder that the prison is above all a tool for social control. They complicate the narrative of American incarceration, raising unanswerable questions.  Can a wild horse ever be completely tamed? Can a convicted offender be fully returned to the place in society he might have held, has he not passed through the experience of incarceration?


[1] Originally researched and edited by Frank “Beck” Brooks and Matthew Valido.

[2] U.S. Department of the Interior, “Taylor Grazing Act,” January 13, 2011.

[3] U.S. Department of the Interior, “Preserving a Symbol of the American West,” August 24, 2015.

[4] American Wild Horse Preservation, “The Wild Horse Annie Act,” accessed November 7, 2015,

[5] State of Colorado, Colorado Correctional Industries, “Wild Horse Inmate Program (W.H.I.P),” accessed November 5, 2015,

[6] “Elite Horse-Inmate Program Endangered,” Canon City Daily Record, March 26,1986.

[7] Tracy Harmon, “Men, Animals Learning to Get Along in Captivity,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 1993, Royal Gorge Regional Museum (hereafter RGRM), “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[8] Dale Burke, “Four Wild Horses Schooled for Prison Farming Chores,” Pueblo Chieftain, undated, RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[9] John Lemons, “Horses Arrive at Canon City,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 1986, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[10] Ibid.; Burke.

[11] John Lemons, “Women Inmates Lose Horse Program: Supervisors Scarce,” Cañon City Daily Record, June 19, 1987.

[12] Tracy Harmon, “Wild Horses Headed for New Homes,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 1992, RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[13] “Canon City Inmates Bridled by Wild Horses,” Canon City Daily Record, 1997.

[14] Erin Flaugh, “Prison Program Helps, Both Inmates and Animals,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 2000, RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[15] “Prison Inmates Shine with Saddle Horse Training,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 2004, RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[16] Debbie Bell, “Film Gives Insight into Life of Horse Whispers,” Canon City Daily Record, January 1, 2009.

[17] “New Use for Wild Horses,” Canon City Daily Record, 2009.

[18] Tracy Harmon, “Taking the Wild Out of the Wild Burros,” Sunday Chieftain, undated, 2013 RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[19] Alysia Patterson, “Wild Mustangs Teach Patience to Colorado Inmates who Train them,” Seattle Times, March 12, 2009.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Tiffany Meredith, “Taming Wild Horses a way to Freedom for some Colorado Inmates,” Canon City Daily Record, undated, 2001, RGRM, “Prison Industries-WHIP” folder.

[22] Tracy Harmon, “Colorado Inmates Learn Craft of Rod-Making and Fly-Tying,” Pueblo Chieftain, March 18, 2008.

[23] Andrea Brown, “Inmates Reel in Profit for Prison,” Colorado Springs Gazette, January 11, 2010.

[24] Brown.

[25] Charlotte Burrous, “Man’s New Best Friend,” Cañon City Daily Record, undated, 2004, RGRM, “Prison Industries-Dogs” folder.

[26] “Prison Trained Dog Program,” accessed November 8, 2015,

[27] Burrous.

[28] Kirk Mitchell, “Prison Dogs as Tension Relief,” Cañon City Daily Record, September 1, 2014.

[29] Tracy Harmon, untitled fragment, Cañon City Daily Record, June 16, 2003.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Blevins.

[34] Michele Foucault, Discipline & Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House Inc., 1977), 240.

[35] Ibid., 231.

[36] Ibid., 251.