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Saddling Horses Can Tame Recidivism and Rein Spending

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Saddling Horses Can Tame Recidivism and Rein Spending

May 18, 2018

America’s criminal justice system holds approximately 2.3 million people. On average, states spend $33,274 per prisoner, with a total estimated cost of $43 billion. However, animal training programs in prisons, such as the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), have the ability to reduce government costs.

According to a National Institute for Justice study, nearly 68 percent of former prisoners were rearrested within 3 years of being released, and 77 percent were rearrested within 5 years of release. Most shocking, over half the prison population that is released each year is rearrested by the end of the first year out.

Some states have been trying to reduce their recidivism rates through animal training programs. One such program, the WHIP program, is based in Florence, Arizona, a state that spends over $25,000 per inmate per year.

Developed in the 1980s in Colorado, WHIP has expanded across the western United States. In Florence, Arizona, the WHIP program was established in 2013 as an alternative rehabilitation program to reduce recidivism. Arizona saw WHIP as opportunity for personal growth for the inmates as well as an opportunity to increase state revenues.

Under the guidance and supervision of an experienced horse trainer, Randy Helm, approximately 30 inmates at one time may be approved to participate in WHIP. Through the program, inmates tame wild mustangs and burros (small donkeys). An animal is considered tamed when it is responsive to a trainer’s commands.

Because the horses are used to living in the wild, they are typically skittish and strong-willed, as they had to be to survive, as well as terrified. By working with the horses and learning to tame them, inmates learn about patience and build self-esteem. In addition, inmates acquire practical skills that have the potential to be useful after prison, such as learning to care for and treat animals properly.

Programs such as WHIP have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. According to an interview with Helm, of the 50 inmate graduates of the program, only two of them returned to prison, a desistance rate of 96 percent. In other areas, such as New Mexico, the recidivism rate in the past for prisons offering animal training programs was 25 percent as compared to the state average of 38 percent.

In addition to benefits for inmates, the programs also benefit state, local, and federal governments and the national economy. Once the wild mustangs and burros have been tamed—a process that takes about 120 days – they are sold in an auction, with the proceeds going to the state.

Border patrol units will often purchase the trained mustangs.  Horses typically cost the border patrol about $5,000, but the horses sold in prison auctions are priced lower, around $500. By buying the horses from these auctions, the border patrol is saving thousands of dollars.

The government also saves money by reducing the number of wild mustangs for which it must care. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) provides the wild mustangs to the prison programs. Currently, the mustangs and burros are overpopulating the western United States. The population is at 73,000, nearly three times greater than what the BLM believes is sustainable.

To reduce the horse population and preserve the natural ecology, the BLM rounds up around 6,000 mustangs a year and houses them in pastures. This can cost the BLM nearly $49 billion per year. Luckily, WHIP utilizes these mustangs and makes them useful for others in the economy.

WHIP also benefits the economy by decreasing the prison population and producing ex-convicts who are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to be productive members of society.

Although start-up costs for these programs can be large – Arizona’s WHIP cost about $230,000 to establish—the long-term gains of the program outweigh the initial costs. WHIP and other animal-inmate training programs should be more closely studied. If the evidence is still suggestive of a significant decrease in recidivism, more programs across the country should be implemented.


Emily Top is a research associate at Economics21.

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