Mike Smith was out of prison for ten days when he blacked out while drinking and was arrested alongside a busy street in Key West. When he sobered up, he was back in jail and had no recollection of being arrested. By his own admission, he was not surprised to be there. This kind of thing had happened before.
“I’m done,” Smith told himself. “If I don’t stop I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in prison.”
This time Smith knew he would have to do a small stint behind bars before he could get a spot in a substance abuse program. In the interim he signed up to be a trustee at the jail and landed the highly coveted job of working on the farm.
For the past two decades abandoned, abused, confiscated and donated animals from around the country have found refugee behind razor wire at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Stock Island Detention Center. It’s a place where a miniature horse named “Bam Bam” grazes his days away on a pasture, as men in orange jumpsuits muck stalls and make sure water dishes are brimming.
Smith was amazed on his first day on the farm. “I figured it’d be just a couple of pigs, maybe,” he said. “I didn’t know there was gonna be snakes and lizards and alligators and everything else.”
Twenty-one years ago, out on the busy road that runs alongside the jail, a flock of ducks was losing its battle with traffic. In response to their dwindling numbers, the ducks were relocated to a fenced-in area under the jail. They put in a pond, and set up a few picnic tables where the sheriff deputies took breaks.
But the sanctuary didn’t stay small for long. As word spread through what locals call the “coconut telegraph” — the unofficial gossip tree that spans the Florida Keys — the jail’s animal population began to increase and diversify. There was a lot of need and it turned out the jail was beginning to look like the place to fill it.
Jeanne Selander — “Farmer Jeanne” as she’s known around town — runs the farm with the trustees. Selander came to the farm almost ten years ago, with a background in marine biology. She was working for the Key West Aquarium when the job opened up and Dr. Doug Mader, who was the veterinarian for the sea turtles there, pushed her to apply. She had a love for animals, but she’d never stepped foot in a jail and was apprehensive about working alongside inmates.
After landing the job, Selander, still unsure, visited the jail site with Mader as he did his rounds. “I thought, ‘What a neat little place’ — and how much more could be done with it. After I saw how the [previous] farmer interacted with the inmates, and that it was a safe environment, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do this.’”
On Selander’s first day there were 25 animals roaming around. Most of them farm animals of the petting-zoo variety. Today, Stock Island Detention Center is home to 150, including Maggie, one of three sloths, and Snowflake, an alpaca. Then there’s Peanut, a miniature horse found wandering in the Everglades after being abandoned by her owner. The animals arrive at the farm through a network Selander builds with animal rescue groups throughout the country. The network focuses on finding homes for animals like Sherman, an African spurred tortoise, acquired during a raid on a drug operation in Denver. Or Ghost, a blind and elderly horse believed to be in his late twenties, who arrived at the farm in 2008 as no more than skin and bones after being abandoned in a remote Florida county.
Ghost passed away last October. Smith, the inmate, knew Ghost well. He knew that the horse would get spooked and could be stubborn, at times. Some of the other inmates had a healthy fear of Ghost, but Smith made a connection. “I just felt comfortable around him,” he said. “And seeing that everyone else was uncomfortable around him, I knew that I had to do what I had to do to make sure he was taken care of right, and not neglected.”
Smith enjoyed “actually doing something good when I was in a pretty bad situation myself… It really gave me peace,” he said. For the inmates here, the animal program is a way to make daily escapes from the jail in order to feed, clean and build the animals’ trust.
Some of the inmates “try to be the big burly guys with the attitude,” Selander said. “And that always used to move me whenever I’d see them talking to the blind horse, because that’s a bond they’re forming with an animal that needs them.”
Twice a month the farm invites the public in to fawn over the animals. It’s not unusual for bimonthly Sunday open houses to draw in around 200 people. Many of them are greeted by Mo the sloth, who is regularly an ornament cradled in Selander’s arms as guests arrive.
“Everyone thinks he is hugging me, but really he just thinks I’m a tree,” Selander said.
Community support allows the farm to continue its work. “If I ever need anything, the community really steps up to help,” Selander said of a program fed entirely by donations.
Of course, the inmates also play a role.
“A lot of the inmates maybe have never had anybody that cared about them,” she said. “And to see that the animals need them… it means something to them. And they really take good care of them… some of them say, ‘You’re in jail just like me.’”
Today, Smith is finishing up treatment and has found work. He is sober. But he fondly remembers his time on the farm, sneaking orange slices to Misty the Moluccan cockatoo, who followed him around the farm cooing, “I love you.”
“It kept me focused,” Smith said. “Spiritually, it helped me a lot. I definitely won’t forget it, that’s for sure.”
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Kim Raff is a freelance documentary, editorial and reportage photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Associated Press. You can follow her work and adventures on Instagramand Facebook. Images for this series were completed during an artist in residency at The Studios of Key West in Key West, Florida.