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‘They’re a lot like us’: California program pairs inmates, wild horses

ELK GROVE, Calif. — Jail inmates and wild horses are helping each other learn to adapt through a California program aimed at preparing both for society.

Inmates at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in rural Elk Grove spend 40 hours a week training mustangs that federal land managers gather from overpopulated areas in 10 Western states.

The training program south of Sacramento is one of six nationwide, with the others at the federal level. Sacramento County officials say theirs is the first within a local correctional facility.

The inmates see themselves in the horses as they both learn valuable lessons and skills.

“They’re a lot like us,” said Christopher Robert Culcasi, 40, who is serving a two-year sentence for auto theft. “You take them from the wild, you herd them up, throw them in holding facilities, take them away from what they know — everything they know — and then ask them to comply. You know, that’s a lot of what we’re going through here.”

Jason MacDonald, 49, said he has been in prison or jail for much of his life, including his current three-year stint for burglary.

“I did something wrong to go to jail. He didn’t do nothing wrong, you know?” he said of his horse. “So I’ve got a compassion for him right off the bat because I feel like he’s in jail wrongly accused, you know, and it’s my job to get him out of jail, to get him a saddle and go.”

Five saddle-trained horses will be auctioned off Dec. 10 by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department program that began in 2014.

Inmates volunteer and must be approved by a correctional panel before they can work with the horses outside the barbed-wire fences that surround the jail. They spend four months taming and training the horses. They also built and maintain the holding pens and care for the pastures where the horses graze.

About 15 percent of inmates who participate in similar programs at federal prisons commit new crimes, far below the national recidivism rate in which about two-thirds of convicts are soon back behind bars, officials said.

“They’re put in a situation where they have to learn leadership skills and they learn about themselves and their anger management and their patience,” ranch manager Joe Misner said. “It changes their thought process on how to handle situations that happen in their lives.”

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