A Unique Approach to Career-Focused Prison Reentry Programming

By Victoria A. Shivy

Professional career counselors are sensitized to the needs of reentrants (i.e., people recently released from prison) as they return to society (Parker, 2018). As a group, these individuals face many acknowledged barriers to career development, including the lack of social capital, history of substance abuse, gaps in education, and the absence of positive role models. They are among those considered difficult to employ (Robbins, 2015). Yet, immediately upon release and as a condition for continued freedom, society expects reentrants to look for work.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) continues to fund the development and evaluation of promising reentry initiatives. One unique type of programming, offered to a small percentage of inmates, is prison-based equine-facilitated animal programming (PEP). PEPs operate in at least 13 U.S. states (Bachi, 2013).

There is mixed evidence of the effectiveness of these programs (Anestis, Anestis, Zawalinski, Hopkins, & Lilienfeld, 2014; Selby & Smith-Osborne, 2013; Kazdin, 2017). This past year, I served on an interdisciplinary team that looked at one PEP, the Greener Pastures Second Chances program, located in Central Virginia. Affiliated with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, Greener Pastures has a 10-year history of success. Program administrators put the re-incarceration rate for this program at less than 5%, compared to 24% for the larger institution housing the program, and about 84% nationally (Alper, Durose, & Markman, 2018). Thus, my team decided to study this program.

Program Description

The Greener Pastures program is overtly vocational in nature. Inmate participants become certified as equine care workers during the six months in the program, and this formal certification means that graduates are career-ready for jobs as grooms, farriers, and other positions in the equine industry. The vocational focus of Greener Pastures in combination with other program features seems to account for the program’s effectiveness. For example, participants are taught Thinking for a Change 4.0 (T4C; Bush, Glick, & Taymans, 2017) and they frequently interact with community-based volunteers.

To understand the effectiveness of this program, the team individually interviewed both participants and graduates; conducted a focus group with program staff; and gathered community perceptions during an “Open Barn” event in which members of the public toured the facility and met the inmates and horses. Both participants and staff emphasized that the active ingredients of this program went beyond the provision of job skills.

Benefits of the Program

Inmates noted that relationships with their teammates, program staff, horses, and visitors from the outside were restorative and key to the program’s success. They reported that the barn environment, specifically with the presence of the horses, was different from the larger institution in that they effectively could forget (during the workday) that they were imprisoned. Working with the horses allowed Greener Pastures participants to engage in challenging and meaningful work tasks, freely making valued and tangible contributions to the rescued horses' care. This internal sense of freedom, in turn, seemed to allow the men to develop safe attachments — some for the first time in their lives — and positive views of self that otherwise might be impossible to achieve within bricks-and-mortar prison walls. These attachments, among the men, horses, and program staff, were grounded in acceptance and mutual empathy. Participants began to see their purpose and value as human beings. In turn, they could distance themselves from internalized stigma and feelings of personal ineffectiveness so prominent in their prison experiences (Maruna, 2001), and envision themselves in new social and occupational roles (Blustein, 2008). Participants’ hands-on, in the moment, team-based skills-building work with horses enhanced their feelings of personal effectiveness, helped them to ‘try on’ positive social identities, and addressed the stigma of incarceration.

For staff, who seemed unusually devoted to the Greener Pastures program, a repeated saying was “You know, you come for the horses – but you stay for the men.” Staff viewed themselves, first, as caring for the TRF horses by helping teams of inmates to acquire knowledge, a set of tangible horsemanship skills, and a recognized certification. However, staff found that they could teach the inmates to learn. That is, staff believed they laid the groundwork for inmates’ nascent self-efficacy. Most staff reported that it was the relationships (i.e., inmates’ connections with the horses and with staff) that were transformative. They observed the program as motivating participants’ senses of responsibility and purpose, increasing their confidence and self-esteem, and offering excellent opportunities to learn and practice emotion regulation skills.

Current Gains and Future Research

In conclusion, the Greener Pastures program seems to work for both horses and men. Horses recover and are adopted to caring homes. More important, of course, Greener Pastures program participants—broken in their own unique ways—seem to recover, too. They learn real world skills from people who care, and they do not return to prison. Perhaps the TRF Second Chances website describes it best, saying “Imagine a place where people and animals come together to help each other. Horses adjusting to a new life of retirement following a busy career in racing. Prison inmates working to acquire a valuable skill to put them a step ahead when they return to the job market. Both sides have a lot to learn. Both sides have a lot to give. Both sides have a lot to gain.”

In June of 2018 NIJ Director David Mulhausen spoke about the importance of rigorous research in reentry practices. In October of 2018, he added to these remarks and noted that practitioners – people in the field – must not only inform and participate in reentry research, but they also must be empowered to conduct their own research as well. By listening to reentry practitioners our research team learned of an impressive and highly successful program called Greener Pastures. We were honored to study this program using qualitative methods. Future researchers can validate this effectiveness of this unique prison reentry program and continue to examine its effects as a positive career intervention.



Alper, M., Durose, M. R., & Markman, J. (2018). 2018 Update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-Year follow-up period (2005-2014). U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 250975.

Anestis, M. D., Anestis, J. C., Zawalinski, L. L. Hopkins, T. A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014). Equine-related treatments for mental disorders lack empirical support: A systematic review of empirical investigations. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70, 1115-1132. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22113

Bachi, K. (2013). Equine-facilitated prison-based programs within the context of prison-based animal programs: State of the science review. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 52, 46-74.

Blustein, D. L. (2008). The role of work in psychological health and well-being: A conceptual, historical, and public policy perspective. American Psychologist, 63, 228–240. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.63.4.228.

Bush, J., Glick, B., & Taymans, J. (2017). Thinking for a change 4.0. Longmont, CO: National Institute of Corrections. Retrieved from https://nicic.gov/thinking-for-a-change

Kazdin, A. E. (2017). Strategies to improve the evidence base of animal-assisted interventions, Applied Developmental Science, 21, 150-164. DOI:10.1080/10888691.2016.1191952

Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Mulhausen, D. B. (2018, June 13). Research on Returning Offender Programs and Promising Practices [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://nij.gov/about/director/Pages/muhlhausen-research-on-returning-offender-programs-and-promising-practices.aspx

Mulhausen, D. B. (2018, October 12). Elevating practitioners – from advisers to participants as drivers [Web log comment]. Retrieved from https://www.nij.gov/about/director/Pages/muhlhausen-elevating-practitioners.aspx

Parker, S. (2017, April 1). Great expectations: Providing excellence in reentry programming. Career Convergence Web Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/136577/_self/CC_layout_details/false

Robbin, L. (2015, June 1). Strategies for helping the hard to employ. Career Convergence Web Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/106819/_self/CC_layout_details/false

Selby, A. & Smith-Osborne, A. (2013). A systematic review of effectiveness of complementary and adjunct therapies and interventions involving equines. Health Psychology, 32, 418-432. doi: 10.1037/a0029188


Victoria ShivyVictoria A. Shivy, PhD, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has worked with underserved populations (first-gen college students, people from lower SES backgrounds, individuals who’ve experienced incarceration) across her career. At VCU she teaches at the undergraduate (Careers in Psychology and Experimental Methods), and graduate- levels (Career Development and Careers in Biomedical Sciences). Her research is focused on career decision-making and career intervention. She can be reached at vshivy@vcu.edu

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1 Comment

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 04/02/2019 at 11:31 AM

Thanks for the excellent article about a very well designed and innovative program. If anyone would like my Reentry and Employment Resource List, please email me at larry@larryrobbin.com. The list is full of best practice reports, helpful websites and information about pre and post release practices that can help people in reentry become successful in the world of work.

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