Lexington is home to a unique and widely unknown program that is the fruit of a partnership between the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) and the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Blackburn Correctional Complex, home to roughly 600 gentleman serving a range of sentences for past transgressions, is an educational institution that readies its occupants with workplace skills in a variety of occupations. Through the direction and mentorship of the TRF, Blackburn became the first TRF Second Chances program in Kentucky in 1999. Shortly before the first TRF horses arrived, an old dairy barn was converted to accommodate them. Today, it is one of the largest Second Chances programs in the US, with about 50 horses living out their retirement years on 100 acres of prime Kentucky bluegrass at the state’s largest minimum security prison. Just as has happened at the other TRF Second Chances programs at correctional facilities across the country, the inmates and the horses at Blackburn have become close friends.
The TRF Second Chances program is a pioneering program implemented by the TRF in partnership with correctional facilities across the United States, and started in 1983 in New York. Within this nationally recognized program, inmates care for retired racehorses, giving them the daily care and attention they so deserve. Although it started as a way to provide two populations with basic needs, it wasn’t long before other benefits of the program were realized as inmates also gained confidence and a sense of empathy. In contrast, Blackburn’s main mission is to provide an avenue for residents to gain vocational training and skills that will help them become employable and productive citizens when they return to the workforce. While the intent of the program was to prepare the individuals for successful transitions to society after their incarceration, there was no specific pathway to connect the men to jobs upon their release. The missing piece was employer engagement. In November 2019, through the work of the Equine Workforce Initiative (an innovative program established by the Kentucky Equine Education Project and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce), and with the engagement of a few progressive employers, the Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program was born at Blackburn in partnership with the TRF Second Chances Program.
The Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program consists of two parts and assists the gentlemen from the beginning of their participation in the TRF Second Chances Program through their gainful employment upon release (and beyond, in many cases). Individuals are enrolled in the first segment, the employability course, while still at Blackburn and are engaged in a curriculum that assists with resume and cover letter building, introduces proper interview skills and teaches how and where to find available employment. As part of the second phase, the employer engagement segment, the gentlemen have access to mock interview sessions with employers as well as the expertise of industry professionals. Once they have completed the employability and employer engagement segments, graduate from the Second Chances programs, and are nearing release, the team of TRF, Blackburn and Equine Workforce Initiative staff help to facilitate employer connections and job opportunities. It is then the goal of the team to help facilitate the gentlemen’s hire and transition into their new position upon release. Needs for support are also monitored and may range from transportation and housing to clothing and financial education. Each individual has their own strengths and challenges, as do employers, and the team is dedicated to helping break down barriers regardless of the cause.
As the Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program continues to gain ground, metrics are being tracked regarding the trajectory of the men after their release with the hope of capturing case studies. The ability to document success, of both the TRF Second Chances program and the Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program will allow the team to continue to work towards the goal of implementing similar employer programs within other correctional facilities.