Upon first entering Wateree River Correctional Institution, a look to the right side of the long driveway appears to be a scene you would find in the bluegrass of Kentucky rather than a prison in central South Carolina.
The prison is home to about 25 retired racehorses. Some of them will spend the rest of their days here, while nearly half are available for adoption. They are cared for by inmates in the Groom Elite program.
“The men that go through our program learn trust,” Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation of South Carolina former board chair William Cox said. “They learn honesty. They learn respect. The learn all the kinds of things the people who live in a normal functioning society have to learn that, a lot of times, these men have never learned.”
Since the program was founded at the minimum-security prison in 2002, more than 250 inmates have learned skills that could help them find jobs working with horses once they are released. And about 175 horses have either been prepared for adoption through the inmates’ care or if they cannot be adopted, enjoy their retirement in the green pastures of Rembert.
The program is popular because it benefits both the horses and the inmates, who must have clean discipline records to participate.
“They learn a lot and I think working with animals really teaches you a lot about yourself,” said SC Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. “There are farms all over the country that want to hire these folks because of the skills that they’ve learned. So they can immediately leave this program and they’re disciplinary free and go to farms — all over the Southeast but mainly all over the country to find a job.”
“We know anybody that participates in programs and gets their education and certifications, they are less likely to go out and commit crimes,” Stirling said. “They’re less likely to come back and be a continued burden on the taxpayer. It’s a win for the taxpayer. It’s a win for public safety.”
But the program relies on donations for funding, and the bank account is getting smaller and smaller.
“It’s just kind of been a steady dry-up of donor funds,” Cox said. “Off-track retired thoroughbreds are just not at the top of people’s list.”
Some funding for the program was once included in the SCDC budget, but that was eliminated during the economic downturn in 2008, leaving private donations as the only funding source.
“We are trying to raise awareness of a dwindling of donations and funds to try to spur a revitalization of our proceeds so that we can continue to provide the Groom Elite program to our inmates,” Cox said. “It’s just a need for additional funding to make sure that we can replace the truck, replace the tractor, replace the fencing. Continue to provide the feed and hay and the veterinarian services. It takes a lot of money to own horses, even old ones.”
The program has no overhead and all the money raised goes directly to the care of the horses and education of inmates. The facility even grows its own hay to save money.
“We’re at a position where I feel a little stagnant with donations and income and things that seem a lot more outgoing than incoming,” said Cox. “So we’re just trying to spur up that support base to make sure that we don’t get into a situation where we have to make some weird kind of decision like that.”
Both Cox and Stirling hope potential donors see value in the program — not just keeping the horses alive, but also rehabilitating inmates.
“These are not choirboys, but they will be getting out of prison one day and we’re trying to give them a head start so that when they do, they can be more productive members of society,” Cox said. “We hope to be here as long as there are men who want to be in the program.”
The prison is not far from Camden, known for its equestrian community, facilities and events.
“Aiken, Camden and elsewhere, there’s a lot of horse racing folks and a lot of farms, so there are plenty of people to hire these folks, which is great,” Stirling said.
In addition to the funding, Cox hopes to possibly have a horse or two assigned to the farm who could be developed through a thoroughbred makeover competition, which would raise the profile of Seabiscuit Stables at the correctional institution. Although they’ve been bred and trained to run really fast, thoroughbreds are easily adaptable and are used to working. They also already have been trained to stand, saddle, and trailer.
Those interested in adopting a horse are able to visit the farm. Arrangements can be made through TRF. Click here for more information or to donate. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 2248, Camden, South Carolina 29020.