Nov. 8, 2013
Ben Cheston grew up around horses in Madison County, but never thought he would be grooming them in prison.
Cheston got into trouble on a tree-cutting job in Charlottesville, and is now about halfway through a stretch at the James River Work Center.
After an interview, Cheston is now one of nine men at Greener Pastures. The inmates are charged with the care and feeding of rescued thoroughbreds, onetime stars of the track.
"These horses kinda are therapeutic in a way," says Cheston. "They don't look at you like a criminal. It's kinda taken me away from some of the negative, negativity, of prison itself. Gives me a little bit of hope that there's some different life out there."
Greener Pastures is a one-of-a-kind partnership between the Department of Corrections and the non-profit Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF).
"Nobody ever told these men they had any kind of value," Anne Tucker with TRF said. "The men get a new way to look at things. They look at life differently."
"This is a work assignment, so its teaching them work skills, work ethics dependability, and reliability," says Assistant Warden Nicole Linamen. "We also have pragmatic aspects to this where they're doing cognitive behavioral programming as well as just working on social skills."
The men work as a team and develop the kind skills that can get them a job after they're released.
So far, 56 offenders at James River Work Center have graduated from the Groom Elite program, which certifies them to work at farms and race-tracks.
Cheston says his godmother has a job set up in Culpeper for him when he gets out.
"I've rekindled my passion for horses since I've been down here," he says.
The inmates at Greener Pastures take care of about two dozen former race-horses, many of them are eventually adopted as pleasure or performance horses.