STATE FARM, Va., June 5, 2009 — -- They are proud and powerful creatures -- thoroughbreds all. But they're losers. That's how they ended up at James River Correctional Institution, Virginia's oldest prison.
But what's true of the horses is also true of the inmates: There are plenty of good candidates for rehabilitation.
The Second Chances program at James River helps retired racehorses transition out of the fast lane into the slower-paced life of the farm. Second Chances allows the horses to escape the glue factory. The program also helps prison inmates escape a life of crime.
The day ABC News visited, Kevin Edwards, who's currently serving time for grand larceny, was bandaging the leg of a huge black stallion.
"What's this fellow's name?" we asked him.
"Believe it or not, his track name was Life Behind Barz," Edwards said, smiling. "But we call him Dusty."
The nine inmates enrolled in the program wear prison-issue dungarees with an orange stripe up the side. A single correctional officer keeps watch over them, with the help of local horsewomen who look slightly out of place in the prison atmosphere.
Robin Williams of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation wore a prim red cardigan with matching earrings. She and several other horse owners from neighboring farms raise money for the program, organize veterinary care and teach the inmates the basics of how to care for horses.
"I really got involved to save horses, that's what I've been involved with all my life. But as soon as I came over here and saw it in action, I realized we're saving people," Williams said.
The program started more than a year ago. It is based on similar programs in New York and South Carolina. The horses at James River would have been destined for the slaughterhouse had they not been sent to prison.
As racetrack losers, their original owners considered the horses too expensive to keep and useless to breed. The owners were happy to give them to the prison.
The prison renovated an old cow barn just down the road from the main prison compound, an intimidating fortress of brick and razorwire. But the barn, refurbished with private donations, seems like it's a world away, surrounded by lush green pastures in the middle of prime Virginia horse country.
The inmates learn patience, responsibility and job skills.
Most of them have never been around horses before. Many of them confess they were frightened at first -- a thoroughbred can intimidate even the toughest of men.
"This is just 1,000 pounds of muscle, pure power," said Edwards. "These animals can break a man down."
Each inmate, plus an apprentice, is assigned to a thoroughbred. The prison has 17 of them, including several former champions.
The inmates do everything for the animals -- they feed them, groom them and even provide basic veterinary care. About the only thing they're not allowed to do is ride them. The warden considers that an escape risk.
Tamio Holmes, a former drug dealer, plans to become a blacksmith when he gets out of prison.
"It's hard work," he said. "But there's good money in it."
It's true. A good ferrier can earn in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Another inmate, Pete Lucs, was just days away from finishing a three-year drug sentence. He already had a job lined up as a groom at a nearby racetrack.
"I am definitely going to miss my horses," he said. "Hopefully, I can come back and see them sometimes."
Like the inmates, the horses are at James River only on a temporary basis. All of them are up for adoption. But they tend to be skittish after life in the fast lane.
Like the inmates, they need a little rehab before they're ready to leave this unusual prison.