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A troubled inmate joined a horse program to get an extra lunch. It changed his life.

A horse, a convict, a chance for change

At the Wild Horse Program at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center inmates train wild mustangs to become adoptable to the public. Changed by his love for a wild mustang, Zephyr, Chris Culcasi struggled towards a life outside of crime.
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At the Wild Horse Program at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center inmates train wild mustangs to become adoptable to the public. Changed by his love for a wild mustang, Zephyr, Chris Culcasi struggled towards a life outside of crime.

Chris Culcasi just wanted extra food. Turns out, his hunger changed the direction of his life.

Culcasi joined the Wild Horse Training Program at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center because inmate trainers get two lunch trays instead of one. The lessons Culcasi learned and the support he’s received since his release have been crucial to setting him on a new path.

Months after his release from jail, Culcasi, 40, seems to have broken the cycle that had him returning to jail time and time again. He’s living in the Sierra, working for a company that gives guided horseback tours. He takes groups out on the trails and shoes horses at the ranch. In September, he will return to the Sacramento area to become an apprentice horseshoer.

It’s a far cry from his life in Sacramento. Culcasi was a serial car thief and methamphetamine addict who cycled in and out of prison for years before he found the Wild Horse Program.

Inmate trainers spend months on the ranch just outside RCCC’s gates, working with captive wild mustangs provided by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Inmate trainers must take the never-been-touched horses and make them adoptable. The program was designed by ranch manager Joe Misner, a lifelong horse trainer.

“The horses have an effect on the inmates in the aspect that they allow the inmate to learn about themselves,” Misner said. “They’re a blank slate for each other. The horse doesn’t look at the inmate as a convicted criminal, he just looks at him as a human being.”

As months on the ranch slowly changed his worldview, Culcasi developed a dream for life after jail – he wanted to go to horseshoeing school.

Then came a donation from former FBI agent George Vinson, who learned about Culcasi through a December article in The Bee. Culcasi, who did not graduate from high school, graduated third in his class from the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School in May.

“If you dream it and you’re willing to work for it, there’s people out there who will help you and support you,” Culcasi said.

Readers inspired by Culcasi’s story donated enough money to send a second graduate, John Blackwell, from the Wild Horse Program to farrier school. He is living in transitional housing while he waits for the next round of classes to start. A third inmate, Doug Slabbekorn, launched a GoFundMe account to raise money to attend the school.

But when Culcasi was released from jail, he had three months to fill before classes began. That gap had the potential to derail his rehabilitation. Former inmates are most likely to fall back into their own habits immediately after release, said retired Sacramento County sheriff’s Sgt. Wayne Ebe, who is Misner’s second-in-command.

“A lot of guys don’t have a lot of connections except the people they hung around with before they got arrested,” he said. “The connected thing is a very integral part of them being successful and not returning to drugs and addiction.”

Culcasi filled that time by going into the Sacramento Re-Entry Program run by the Volunteers of America. At first he viewed the time as a delay in pursuing his dream, but the 90-day program gave him skills to make the transition to lawful, civilian life much smoother. Classes focused on the underlying issues that make it difficult for inmates to re-enter regular society, such as addiction, mental health problems and bullying behavior.

Ebe said he and Misner stay in contact with the trainers released from their program, especially those who don’t have concrete plans lined up.

“We know when something is going astray,” he said. “When they don’t answer the phone or don’t call back, we know something is wrong.”

A couple of the inmates who made it through the six-step training program have returned to jail. Ebe said one of them will be going back to the horse ranch while he serves a three-year sentence.

“He’s full of humiliation and guilt, of course, by disappointing us, slipping and falling again with drugs,” he said. “But we won’t give up on him. He can come back out to the ranch and find his path again, find his trail again.”

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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