This is a tale of team work between two entities that, at a glance, may seem to have nothing in common.
Maine Correctional Center (MCC) is a medium security adult facility on a grassy hilltop in Windham. Look northeast out an MCC window, through razor wire, cyclone fencing, just across River Road. You see the white clapboard Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals (MSSPA) buildings and wood fencing in its pastoral setting.
MSSPA, says Vice President/CEO Meris J. Bickford, Esq., is "the largest horse shelter in New England - a no-kill shelter. We've had as many as 90 horses here at one time. We are the preferred option “by Maine government for rehabilitation of horses seized because of owner abuse and neglect.” If we didn't exist, some of those horses would be euthanized on site where they had been abused," says Bickford. "The Society will not be able to succeed without support in the community, including the considerable help we get from the correctional center. They really are good neighbors.”
Collaboration between MCC and MSSPA started in the 1970s. The relationship lapsed once over a land use dispute, but began again in 2007 when Bickford joined MSSPA. She credits a meeting "over pie, ice cream and lots of coffee," with MSSPA and the Maine Departments of Agriculture and Corrections for "opening the door to a lot of very good opportunities."
The primary conduit, through which the society receives animals, is the Department of Agriculture's animal welfare program," Bickford says. "District Human Agents seize these animals from abuse and neglect situations and place them here. The MSSPA expends about a million dollars a year to rehabilitate and care for the animals. Once fully recovered, the animals are offered for adoption into permanent homes in the community. All the work is done at no charge to the state. The society is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) public charity."
At that pie, ice cream, coffee meeting, Bickford recalls "Essentially, agriculture said to corrections, 'These folks at the society, they're working hard to help us, saving us a million dollars a year. It seems there could be some better relationship with corrections in selling the MSSPA hay made at MCC and maybe MCC could provide some inmate labor to help the society. We would like the animal shelter to stay in business, able to care for the horses.'"
MCC Warden Scott Landry continues the relationship started by his predecessor Scott Burnheimer. Bickford says, "We got along great with Scott Burnheimer. He was wonderful to this organization. And Scott Landry has been equally generous and kind."
Today, MCC/MSSPA team up in three key ways: MCC makes, stores, and delivers quality hay for MSSPA. MCC prisoners clean MSSPA's big horse barn seven days a week. MCC supervised work crews help repair MSSPA's wooden horse fencing.
The three prisoners who clean and prepare the barn, says Bickford, "come between 8:15 and 8:30 in the morning. I believe they're Community Release Level classification. They get a cup of coffee, catch up on the barn news of the day, and get to work mucking in the big barn," she says. "The majority of inmates who come over here have been very, very good. They're motivated, hardworking, and some of them have farm experience. They know something about what they're doing.
"I like to talk to them about the animals," Bickford continues. "It is quite interesting to me how many of the inmates seem to recognize the parallel process between what has happened to these animals - maybe - and what's happening to them.”
"Maybe they didn't get the best start," Bickford says. "Maybe somehow they were abused and neglected. Maybe they drink and maybe they drug and that's part of what got them where they are. Some actually have enough self-awareness to recognize, 'Okay. I see how these horses get rehabilitated and then they go back out into the world. The same thing is maybe happening to me.'”
Bickford says, "They don't all see that, but some do. Some of them see it clearly and say it quite well.”
She continues, "We open to the public at 1 p.m. By the time the prisoners leave at noon - their responsibility is to have cleaned the big barn: Muck every stall, wash every feed tub, wash every water bucket, and set the stalls up with fresh shavings and hay for turn in. It's kind of an appealing job in June. In January it's a tough haul," says Bickford.
MSSPA has "miles of wooden fencing" in need of repair and painting. "Last year," says Bickford, "MCC work crews," with MCC/MSSPA supervisors, “marked out several miles of fencing to work on. The inmates took down every board - called a rail - and laid it on the ground as though it were a jigsaw puzzle.
"They accounted for every nail when it came out of a post! Nails and horses do not mix," she says. Gorham Fence Company came in and, at a tremendous discount, reset the uprights using their guardrail driving machine. Then the inmates put the rails back up. Anything that needed replacing, we put new rails up. Thereafter we have used primarily volunteer labor to get that fencing painted. The inmate crews were a tremendous help. The society could not have afforded to pay people to perform that work. It's like a gift," says Bickford.
"Do I see other opportunities with the inmates?" asks Bickford. "I do. I realize MCC's mission in life is not to work for the MSSPA. I understand that. But I am so enthusiastic about working with them. They're a great resource, they're cost effective, and I know they do things on the inside that could work to our mutual advantage — but are not. For example, I know the correctional center has a silk screening operation. They have quilt making - all manner of things. We need to find ways to use those programs that they're already doing to be helpful to the MSSPA, which also helps MCC," she says.
"Luke Monahan, the Unit II Manger has just been a blessing for me," Meris Bickford says. "He really is my contact person for the day-to-day laborers. And when we've ever had any issues or concerns - Luke is the man I work with. Whenever I interface with Scott Landry, Will Towers, or Tom Hanrahan - it's nothing but positive. Everyone here is so grateful for the support the society receives from the Maine Correctional Center.”