By Gaia De Simoni
WINDHAM, Maine – The sun is barely rising and the officers of the Southern Maine Women Reentry Center (SMWRC) have just finished their first roll call of the day.
Claire Marie Valenoti looks outside the only window of her tiny room. On the right, a cork board covered with photos of her two kids and other family members hangs above her neatly laid twin bed.
No bars limit her view of the green hills surrounding the prison, but she is unable to open the window and feel the cold air on her face.
She has been here since December 2018 for aggravated trafficking of scheduled B drugs and possession of crack cocaine, serving four years in prison and three years of probation.
“At least it’s not sad,” Valenoti says, looking outside, her long blond hair gathered in a bun.
Her blue eyes look across River Road, the only street outside the prison, to a white and green building surrounded by white fences. She can see the tiny outline of a dark brown Quarter horse out in the green paddock chewing its hay.
“Violet is over there,” she says with a smile, pointing at her favorite horse.
Valenoti is one of 15 inmates who volunteer daily for the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals (MSSPA) and assist the staff there to run the shelter. The program is the result of a partnership started in August 2018 between MSSPA and the reentry center to help minimum-security women prisoners transition back into the community.
A few yards away from Valenoti’s room, a chaotic and joyful neighing can be heard coming from the big barn. The 32 horses rehabilitated in the shelter, most of them after a life of neglect and abuse, stick their heads out of their stalls. They “talk” to each other and call for their breakfast as a member of the staff pulls a cart full of dry feed along the aisle.
Once breakfast is served, the day is ready to start for both the horses and Valenoti.
As the staff turns the horses out to let them spend the rest of the day with their friends in the paddocks surrounding the barn, Valenoti gets ready to start volunteering. She opens her closet with a key hanging on a blue lanyard around her neck. Looking at the mirror, she puts some makeup on her eyes. Then, she pulls on her light grey hoodie with the white MSSPA logo.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., the black van of the reentry center will drive her and seven other inmates across the street to the horse shelter. For the next four hours and half, she will forget the prison.
“Once we pull out of that driveway, it’s almost like a relief,” Valenoti says.
The volunteers get off the van and run quickly into the kitchen of the MSSPA, where they meet with Robert Sheckler, the volunteer coordinator. It’s also an opportunity for them to make a cup of coffee and have some breakfast with Sheckler, to talk about the tasks of the day and see how everybody is doing.
Linda Roberts, 63, is the first inmate to leave the morning meeting and head to the stalls. Petite, with gray hair covered in a gray and pink wool hat, she takes the path on the left side of the big barn and walks fast to a paddock. Gideon, her favorite horse, is there with his friend Grace chewing some hay.
Roberts approaches the fence, leans on it and stares through her rectangular glasses at Gideon. “Gideon, come here,” she calls, moving her arm to direct him towards her.
The 22-year-old dark bay horse slowly turns and walks to her.
“He is older, he is like me. He looks like the type that needs a person in his life,” Roberts says. “Somebody that will talk to him every day and slowly I am starting to feel that I need that.”
Roberts, who has been in prison since 2017 for theft by unauthorized taking or transfer, has been volunteering with the program since its start. She now works in a window factory for 50 hours a week but has continued coming to the horse shelter every Sunday and on holidays.
Once Gideon has left her to go back to the pile of hay, Roberts starts doing her chores with the other volunteers. She gets a wheelbarrow from outside the barn and carries it to the bottom to clean the first stall on the left.
Her hands warmed in gray gloves grab a pitchfork to clean the shavings of wood of the stall from horses droppings. She cleans up the wet hay too, carefully putting everything in the wheelbarrow and checking for dirt she has missed. Once done, she cleans the water buckets and refills them.
At the same time, some volunteers take care of the other stalls while others clean up the feed tubs and assemble them in the feeding room, ready to be used to prepare the next horses’ meal.
Valenoti and another inmate roll out the hay and put small piles of it outside every stall as Roberts wipes the aisle of the barn with the help of other volunteers.
It’s the everyday routine, with all the women doing everything needed to be done in a dance of brooms and pitchfork at the pace of the country music playing on the radio.
“I come over here and my mind is at ease. All that I do is take care of the horses. They’re looking at you and you don’t think about anything else,” Roberts says. “It gives you a sense of peacefulness. You just feel fulfilled.”
Around noon, when the stalls are all cleaned, the volunteers have lunch at the shelter before the black van picks them up at 1:30 p.m. to bring them back to their afternoon routine at the reentry center.
Roberts defines herself as “a solo person,” and when she is back from work or from the shelter on the weekend afternoons, she prefers to stay in her room crocheting or watching the TV.
On the corkboard above her bed, the photos of her granddaughter and sons, as well as the ones of Shane and Daisy, her two previous favorite horses at the shelter, will keep her company for the rest of the day.
The idea of having inmates volunteering in the shelter and helping with the everyday activities came to MSSPA CEO’s mind, Meris J. Bickford, years before 2018.
“Part of the challenges of running a nonprofit animal shelter is that you never have enough money to really pay people to do all the work that needs to be done,” says Bickford.
She started collaborating with the Maine Correctional Center in Windham to have men inmates volunteer in the shelter. After a couple of years, she realized the program was not turning out as she expected.
“The men were more of a management challenge for us as staff, they tended to question authority,” she recalls.
In 2017 the Maine Department of Corrections opened the doors of the Southern Maine Women Reentry Center across the street and Bickford realized it could be a great opportunity for MSSPA. She was not the only one. The reentry center itself and the unit manager, Michelle McLauchlan, decided to start a new program having women inmates volunteer at the shelter.
From the beginning, it was completely different from the time with the men. The prison didn’t want the women to be segregated like it did in the past. It wanted them to socialize with the members of the staff at MSSPA, to wear their clothing with the shelter’s logo and to have them have lunch there.
“We want it to be an experience that doesn’t feel like they’re incarcerated. It’s important for them to feel like real human beings,” Michelle McLauchlan says.
The program has exceeded the expectations of both Bickford and McLauchlan. They soon realized how the horses and the women share the same rehabilitating path.
“The women see a correlation between their lives in the lives of the horses. It gives them a sense of belonging to the horses,” McLauchlan says. “You start to see a change when they go over there [to MSSPA]. They come back to the reentry center and they are much happier.”
The program is helping the inmates to have a second chance to be rehabilitated with the horses. Both the women and the horses come from a difficult life and they have a chance with the shelter and the reentry center to start over. Thus, according to Bickford, it helps the horses to socialize more and start trusting people again.
As the night comes on MSSPA and SMWRC, the everyday routine continues. Valenoti is back in her room waiting for a new roll call, as the horses are all back in their stalls eating their dinner. The grey curtain of her room is now rolled down, hiding the view and ready for the night. The next morning will come, with the same view to look at and the horses to help. But most of all a new morning to look at for a better future.
“They didn’t have the best life before coming here. Beaten broken down, abused, neglected and now they have a chance for a better future,” Valenoti says. “The same thing for me.”