Even as she toiled at a Woodbine farm Thursday in the relentless heat and humidity, Paula Jordan said she and three other female inmates were grateful to the owners for allowing them "a little taste of freedom."
Jordan, a 41-year-old Baltimore resident convicted of second-degree assault, is a member of a newly formed crew dispatched from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women to pitch in twice a week with maintenance on the 58 acres of rolling pasture at Days End Farm Horse Rescue.
The nonprofit organization long known for giving horses second chances at life is turning a spotlight on prisoners in need of the same opportunity.
"I made wrong choices and I'm paying the consequences," said the single mother of three who is serving a six-year sentence at the Jessup prison and is slated to be released in October 2011.
"We accept that we will be working in the fields for now, but I love animals," Jordan said eagerly. "We met some of the horses Tuesday and learned the ways they communicate. This will be a good learning experience."
"Being here and knowing that I'm helping them for a good cause makes me feel like I'm giving something back," said inmate Whitley Neal, 22.
After announcing the new partnership from the farm, Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, echoed Jordan's expectations for the joint project that will shadow a men's program already in place at Second Chances Farm in Sykesville.
That facility opened in May 2009 and is associated with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation based in Lexington, Ky.
"While the female inmates work to improve conditions for the horses, the relationships they develop with the animals will begin working on them and help them learn to love other people and themselves," said Maynard, calling the abused horses' situation "a good analogy to the inmates' lives."
The women will develop good work habits that will assist them in securing jobs after they're released, he said.
The crew will range from four to eight women, depending upon the availability of candidates, who will be selected for the program based on their behavior records, types of crimes committed and remaining lengths of incarceration, Maynard said.
The participating offenders will also earn good-conduct credits that will shave months off their sentences, just as 350 other male and female inmates are doing each day at similar DPSCS partnerships throughout the state — from building oyster cages to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay to caring for veterans' cemeteries.
"Getting help maintaining these 58 acres after only having 18 on our previous farm will make a big difference to us and to the horses," said Kathleen Howe, who founded Days End in 1989. "We believe that people, like horses, can go on to better lives than the ones they had before."
No shortage of abuse
The equine population at Days End Farm has drifted back down to about 70 after hitting an all-time high of 93 boarders in mid-May when 26 horses were confiscated by Garrett County animal control officers from a 5-acre Oakland farm, said Sue Mitchell, development director.
About 1,500 volunteers put in nearly 800 man-hours each week at Days End caring for abused horses with a broad range of needs, including the 16 remaining Garrett County horses that were on the verge of death when they were confiscated May 13.
Within two weeks of the impoundment, 10 of the horses requiring less critical care were transferred from Days End to two Mount Airy farms, HorseNet Horse Rescue and Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue, though Days End still retains responsibility for their care, Mitchell said.
Eighteen cattle and six goats were also taken from the Oakland farm of Richard and Carolyn Friend, who have been charged with 38 counts of animal abuse, according to Bernadine Friend, executive director of the Garrett County Humane Society and no relation to the accused.
Bernadine Friend said 17 corpses were also discovered lying around the property, along with heaps of burned and buried carcasses.
While Days End's 16-person staff and volunteer corps work to rehabilitate the horses, whose progress will become more visible in another month, they are considered evidence in the continuing animal cruelty investigation in Garrett County, Mitchell said.
"There is never going to be a shortage of neglected and abused horses needing care," she said. "We believe we will never again drop back to caring for fewer horses than we have right now."
Animal abuse is occurring more frequently because of the economy, Howe said, and this has combined with people becoming better educated about reporting instances of abuse to bring about an increase in the number of cases.
"What has changed over the years is that horse abuse is being prosecuted more and owners are being held to a stricter code," she said.