The Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, Colorado is about what I expected. A collection of squat stone buildings sprawling over 80 acres at the base of dusky low sagebrush hills. There’s the full complement of security shacks, guard towers and walls with razor wire that a maximum security facility deserves.
I’m way overdressed for this hot, Indian Summer day, but I’ve put on clothes that follow the letter of the written regulations provided to me before my visit. Actually, the regulations were more explicit about what NOT to wear: no shorts, miniskirts, or tank tops, no see-through clothing, nothing in any way revealing or, heaven forbid, seductive.
As long as I steered clear of these categories the choice of garments was up to me. Before leaving the ranch, I’d made sure my car was clear of cameras, binoculars, pets, cell phones and, it goes without saying, weapons, all of which also were explicitly forbidden by Dept. of Corrections’ security procedures. I couldn’t help but wonder what I might have on me or in my car that they hadn’t thought to forbid in writing, but didn’t want brought in nevertheless.
Turning off the two-lane highway, I head for the entrance of this Level V security correctional institution, housing, in the facility’s own words, “the department’s most violent, dangerous, and disruptive offenders.” As I open my window approaching the entry I’m surprised by how silent it is. Even the birds have moved far away from here, though in truth there’s not a tree in sight to accommodate any who’d wish to hang around and a razor-wire perch is hard on those tiny feet.Without the benefit of air conditioning the heat hits me full force. Pulling up to the security post, my nerves get the better of me. “I’m here to see my horse,” I say a bit squeakily, feeling queasy and just this side of idiotic. True, I’m here to see the horse I’d adopted through the BLM. But I’m also about to meet one of those aforementioned offenders: Manuel, convicted felon, gang member, with a 25-year sentence and, I imagine, not a few tattoos. But let’s not forget the most salient fact about Manuel as far as I’m concerned: he’s a horse trainer in the Wild Horse Inmate Program, a work privilege he’s earned and kept for many years now. And lest you missed what’s spelled by the initials of the program? It’s WHIP…..
Manuel is caretaker and trainer of the horse I’d picked out from amongst 200 pneumonia-stricken mustangs milling about a large corral on the penitentiary grounds three months ago. I’d done my best to inspect knobby-kneed legs for straightness and good hoofs while the herd wandered about raising clouds of pungent dust. Finally finding a set that looked sound and strong, I raised my eyes to find the freeze brand on the neck associated with those legs, choosing a dark dappled grey stallion. I was informed he’d been caught in a recent round-up after 4 years of surviving on scrub brush and sage in the Piceance Creek area near Meeker, Colorado. Now he was mine.
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