Horse therapy program expanding to women's prison

Horse therapy program expanding to women's prison

A correctional centre where two women have died in the past two months will be offering a new form of mental health therapy: using horses.

The pilot project, run by Newfoundland and Labrador charity Spirit Horse, will operate once a week for four months, starting June 26 at the Clarenville prison.

"The people there, they want help," said Erin Gallant, who owns and operates Spirit Horse.

"Let's not all just do correction, let's put some compassion into it too ... because a lot of the reasons they're there is because of mental health issues and addiction issues. So let's treat them as humans first, like the horses do."

Gallant said her group got the OK from the department of justice in May.

"We're doing a project currently at Her Majesty's Penitentiary that we started three weeks ago, and we're in week three of eight," she said.

"Back in March when I knew I was making the connection with the men's corrections, I wanted to try and make a connection with women as well."

According to Gallant, two horses will be taken to Clarenville and depending on how the pilot project works, it could be extended.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has asked a former Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer to conduct a review after two inmates, Skye Martin and Samantha Piercey, died in custody during late April and May.

Piercey's mother has been told her daughter died by suicide. Police said Martin choked on a sandwich, but an inmate who knew her has speculated she may have tried to take her own life.

Horses don't judge

The deaths have reignited criticism about the lack of mental health services for inmates.

Gallant believes the horses are one way of helping.

"In Canada, we're the only place that's ever actually gone inside a prison with horses, both men's or women's, so it's something we're very, very proud of," she told the St. John's Morning Show on Wednesday.

"It's the fact that they're these big, large animals but they don't judge and they give off this huge energy field. They live in the moment with us ... and from the results we've had so far through HMP ... people just feel safe, they feel calm, they feel like they can talk about what their root issue is of why they are where they are, what brought them there."

Spirit Horse is paying for the prison therapy program through money donated by the Merb'ys, a calendar project organized by the provincial beard and moustache club.

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador