Could therapy horses be the solution to Britain’s prison crisis?

An innovative rehabilitation programme is using ‘equine therapy’ to break the cycle of crime and ease the overcrowding crisis in Britain’s prisons.

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Former prisoner and current equine facilitator Sam shows horses to men in the Key4Life programme [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

“I was hungover that morning. I’d had an argument with my kids’ mum the night before and got drunk,” says Sam, 31, recalling the day he first came face to face with a therapy horse. “Steve [a criminal rehabilitation case worker] came over and had to drag me out of the bed to take me to the farm.

“I just went for the barbeque and the coffee; I didn’t want anything to do with the horses – I was scared of them.”

But when he entered the yard where the horses were waiting that morning in May last year, says Sam, one of them seemed to look right at him. “I don’t know what happened but I was just drawn to it. I went over and it rested its head on my shoulder,” he recalls.

“It was mad. That weight on my shoulder seemed to just wash away all my worries – I had goosebumps all over, like at my kids’ births. I was completely lost emotionally at the time, and for some reason this huge animal was pointing the way for me.”

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Sam explains how the programme for men at risk of reoffending, which includes horses therapy and mentorship, works [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

Sam, a serial recidivist (an official term for reoffender) from Bristol, had been taken to the Dials Green Farm animal sanctuary in Lottisham, Somerset, to take part in an innovative rehabilitation programme for former prisoners, aimed at reducing reoffending rates and ultimately helping to alleviate the overcrowding crisis that Britain’s prisons are currently facing.

Britain’s prison population has more than doubled since the 1990s and two-thirds of prisons in England and Wales are now officially overcrowded. Judges are being told to delay the sentencing of convicted criminals now on bail – including those convicted of crimes such as rape and burglary – because prisons are simply full.

This month, the government was forced to issue emergency measures that saw hundreds of court hearings postponed and suspects released on bail instead of being held in prisons. The government has also launched an “early release” scheme under which many prisoners are being released to home curfew in order to make space in prisons.

A large part of the problem is the high rate of reoffending once prisoners are released. According to the charity behind Sam’s rehabilitation programme, half of young men in prison are serving six months or less for pretty crimes such as drug offences or minor assaults, and 63 percent of those sentenced to less than 12 months in prison will reoffend.

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Men who are at risk of reoffending within a year of leaving prison attend a retreat in Bristol, west England, where they will work with horses and undertake therapy [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

In October last year, Justice Minister Alex Chalk announced that sentences of less than a year would be scrapped for most offenders on the basis that they further criminalise petty criminals and entrap them in a vicious cycle of reoffending. “The cost of living is going up, and many young men are making tough decisions, risking punishment for trying to support their families,” says Ashleigh Wicheard, an equine therapist from Bath. “Short sentences trap people in a vicious cycle as employers are less likely to take on people with criminal convictions.”

But there is another way to address the problem, some experts say. Key4Life is a crime prevention charity that rehabilitates young men in prison, or those – like Sam – who may be at risk of going to prison or returning there. The charity claims its programmes help the men build resilience and release negative behaviours through a powerful blend of equine and music therapy, neuro-linguistic programming and emotional release sessions.

“Key4Life helps to bridge the gap between people with convictions and employment by working with corporates willing to give second chances,” says Wicheard, who works with the charity. “The programme provides the men with various coping strategies that work for each individual, enabling them to create a brighter future. The horses are the difference that makes the difference – without them, the men wouldn’t get the same life-changing experience.”

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Eva Hamilton, founder of Key4Life, a programme that seeks to help men at risk of reoffending within a year of leaving prison [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

‘I lost everything trying to be the top boy’

Key4Life’s founder and chief executive officer, Eva Hamilton, has worked with marginalised communities in the United Kingdom for the past 38 years, for which she was honoured as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2005.

Sam is one of those she has managed to help. Involved with gangs throughout his youth, he estimates he has been to jail 13 or 14 times for offences ranging from shoplifting to drug dealing and robberies. He became homeless at 14 after fleeing abuse and then spent years oscillating between prison and gang life on the streets of Bristol.

“I lost everything – including my kids to the care system – trying to be the ‘top boy’,” he says. “I’ve since spent some time on my own and faced some demons.”

In December 2022 – when Sam was at his lowest ebb – he was contacted by an old drug-dealing associate, Steve, now a mentor and case worker for Key4Life, who invited him to join the charity’s “At Risk” programme.

“A few days before, I’d tried to commit suicide,” recalls Sam. “I was sitting in a trap house (a location used in the illicit drugs trade) with a load of cocaine and money, and Steve contacted me and that was it – I knew I needed a way out.”

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A man taking part in the Key4Life programme, which aims to reduce the rates of reoffending by former prisoners in the UK, meets one of the horses he will work with [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

Hamilton had also been at a low ebb back in 2011 when she decided to set up Key4Life. Suffering from depression after parting ways with another charity, she says she eventually found the strength to shift out of her “dark place” by spending time with her horses. She had grown up around horse racing in her native Ireland, with her family owning a number of racehorses.

The experience – as well as the shock of seeing children as young as eight rioting on the streets of London that summer, following the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old Black man in Tottenham, north London, by police, she says – sparked an idea inside her.

After finding a specialist equine therapist in the United States, she spent the next couple of years laying the foundations for Key4Life, leveraging her three decades of experience setting up charities for veterans, the homeless and reoffenders – particularly geared at unlocking their emotional trauma. She debuted her first Key4Life programme in Bristol’s Ashfield prison in 2013.

“These were 23 of the toughest young men in Britain – all members of warring gangs – and they initially showed us zero respect,” she says. “After 20 minutes, the military trainers I brought along were about to leave but then the horses arrived. These young gangsters suddenly ran to hide in the gym – they became little boys. When we eventually coaxed them out, they really connected with the horses; some of them were in tears. It was one of the most magical moments I’ve witnessed.”

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Sam with the horses [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

Mirroring horses and men

The programme has evolved organically since then. Today, it involves a seven-stage model, running at the prisons HMP Thameside in London, HMP Forest Bank in Manchester and HMP Fosse Way in Leicester; and partnering with a wide array of companies, including the likes of Sony, KPMG, Thames Water and the Chelsea Football Club (previously). “The first stages are about unlocking pain and building emotional resilience,” says Hamilton. “The second stages are about employability.”

Stages one to three begin with equine therapy either inside the prison or at an external retreat.

“The horses are the key part of the programme; they work so well with these guys because, unlike, say, therapy dogs, their size means they instantly command respect,” says Wicheard.

“It’s all about reading the body language of the horse; if the horse doesn’t like something, it’ll give you a bite or a kick. This really reflects the interaction these young men are having with each other in prison, and it allows them to recognise a load of misunderstandings that can come about due to their behaviour and body language.”

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Sam ‘jumps’ a horse over one of the obstacles during the programme [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

During the equine therapy sessions, which take place on the first two days of the programme, the men complete exercises with horses designed to help them increase their emotional awareness and unlock pain, build trust and stronger boundaries, and support them to take steps towards a positive future. The exercises include leading the horses, navigating obstacle courses and practising specific movements or tasks with the horse.

The men are paired off and assigned a horse, with one man leading and the other riding, and they have to traverse a course of obstacles. “They quickly have to learn to work together and communicate to get the horse to do what they want it to, which isn’t easy,” says Wicheard. “They also have to trust each other.”

“They have to be completely present in the task, so for a short period they’re not worrying about what’s going on at home or in the prison,” says Wicheard.

In the retreats, the process will be combined with working with a therapist for the first two days of the programme, but there is not enough time for that in the prisons.

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Men at risk of reoffending take part in workshops that aim to help them release pain and anxiety [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

Equine therapy is followed by emotional and behavioural workshops, music therapy and non-physical football and boxing. “The workshops aim to remove the mens’ anger, fear and pain; looking to replace negative behaviours with positive ones, and fostering the forgiveness and emotional tools needed to get them on a positive path,” explains Hamilton. The football sessions, led by Pablo Blackwood from football club Queens Park Rangers (QPR), focus on how the skills needed on the football pitch can be applied to life outside the game. And, similarly, the men learn how boxing techniques can be used in life for control and staying grounded.

The young men are assigned mentors, and they take part in employability workshops including doing mock interviews with companies in the prison. Finally, each man develops an action plan – spanning plans for future careers, mental health therapies and personal hobbies – before leaving prison.

For instance, the accountancy group KPMG recently led an employability workshop at HMP Fosse Way in Leicester, helping the men with mock interviews and their CVs. Key4Life then put on a “Meet the Companies” workshop, inviting representatives from 10 to 15 local companies to come interview the men. Some of the men were subsequently hired by the companies, or invited to do three-day work placements – some of which also led to job offers.

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A man takes part in an ’employability’ session during the Key4Life programme for men at risk of reoffending following release from prison [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

In stages four to seven, a dedicated Key4Life caseworker helps the young men transition back into society for about nine months. They are “suited and booted” in new interview attire, and they complete a three-day work placement with one of Key4Life’s partner companies, followed by a customised employment search with the caseworker. After family engagement programmes and residential retreats, they finally graduate – and, if they wish, they can train to become “Key Mentors” themselves.

“We work with families to help them understand more about the young men and their recovery process, and play an active role in keeping the men engaged and connected with their families,” says Hamilton.

The prison-based programmes typically last a year – three months in prison, nine outside – and the community-based “At Risk” programme lasts for just six months.

A cheap way to get results

Since its inception in 2012, Key4Life has worked with more than 1,000 offenders and run more than 35 programmes with upwards of 100 companies. These companies have provided mentoring, attended the “Meet the Employer” days, and also put on Dragons Den-type events to provide feedback on the entrepreneurial business ideas of prison inmates.

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Participants in the Key4Life programme take part in a Dragons Den-style forum in which they receive feedback on business ideas [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

A 2018 Ministry of Justice report calculated that reoffending by adults in England and Wales costs the economy around 18.1 billion pounds ($23bn) annually. The estimate included the direct costs of crime, such as criminal justice system expenses (police, courts and prisons), as well as the wider societal costs, such as lost productivity, healthcare and victim support services.

The Key4Life model has shown that it can reduce reoffending rates, and it is also a remarkably cheap way to get results.

According to Bean Research, an analysis group that evaluates the economic benefits of social programmes, only 7 percent of participants have reoffended within a year of being released from prison, compared to the national rate of 63 percent for men with multiple convictions and a prison sentence of less than a year. Compared to the average released prisoner, a Key4Life participant is four times more likely to be in employment one year later. Indeed, 65 percent of those who take part in the programme are employed by the time it comes to an end.

The average annual cost of a prison place in England and Wales is 46,696 British pounds ($59,371), according to figures from the Ministry of Justice. But it only costs 4,820 pounds ($6,128) to put one participant through the Key4Life programme – around one-tenth of that.

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Eva Hamilton talks to an audience of business leaders about employing ex-offenders [Oliver Gordon/Al Jazeera]

Furthermore, according to Bean Research, every pound ($1.27) invested in Key4Life gets a 13.46-pound ($17.11) return, and is forecast to generate 4.08 million pounds ($5.19) for society over three years through economic benefits, savings in public spending and reduced health costs for those involved.

“All these shorter sentences have created a revolving door in our prisons,” says Hamilton. “The question is ‘How can you get them out and keep them out?’, and our model has proven to work.”

It’s all about unlocking their pain and helping them get jobs, she says – and having former prisoners as mentors.

Looking ahead, Key4Life is pushing out the model to more prisons around the country and is looking for more companies to sign up to its Younited Flag campaign, under which they commit to employing ex-offenders who have gone through the programme.

As for Sam, he is now a verified “equine facilitator”, having recently graduated from his equine-therapy course.

“Key4Life has changed my life, and now I want to help other young lads like me,” he says.

“From a five-minute encounter with them horses to me, now, a year on, shows that this stuff really works – for your mental health and your future prospects. I feel like I won the million-pound scratchcard.”

Source: Al Jazeera