A Ray of Hope in a World of Regret
the win-win nature of prison-pet partnerships
November 2007 issue
the win-win nature of prison-pet partnerships
November 2007 issue
By Katie Marsico
For inmates in America’s prison system, it’s easy to regard time served as a punishment instead of a porthole for positive and productive change. Hardened criminals can become even harsher and more hopeless as they struggle to adapt to an environment that is often devoid of empathy and healthy interactions. Men and women who prove exceptions to this rule typically undergo a life-changing experience while behind bars, and for some, such an episode may involve a four-legged catalyst. Prison-pet partnerships are gaining recognition as opportunities for incarcerated people to practice constructive, compassionate behavior while aiding creatures who are similarly in need of a second chance.
An Inspiration for Inmates
“Like it or not,” says Sarah Stevens, “many prisoners will one day re-enter the general populace. What they learn about themselves and the skills they develop in a program like ours can ultimately translate into more caring and productive people.” Stevens is the president of Mixed Up Mutts, Inc., a nonprofit animal-welfare organization based out of LaPorte, Indiana. She is also one of the founders of Prison Tails, which operates in conjunction with a correctional facility in nearby Westville. This program partners dogs that would otherwise face euthanasia in shelters with inmates who instruct them in basic obedience through repetition and positive reinforcement. Two prescreened prisoners are matched with a single animal 24 hours a day for eight weeks, at which point the dogs are, ideally, considered improved candidates for adoption.Similar programs exist throughout the country, though several involve inmates preparing dogs for careers as service animals to the disabled or even working on agility training. While the majority of prison-pet partnerships feature canines, a handful deal with cats and horses, and nearly all include animals that were previously homeless, unwanted, or part of the shelter system. According to Stevens, the powerful influence such creatures have on prisoners is remarkable.“The program works because offenders can identify with the plight of the shelter dog that has been discarded and warehoused for his mistakes. Feeling love for and from the animals is also often a surprising and emotional experience for the [inmates], who shed tears when their ‘bunky’ for the last eight weeks leaves for his new home. By caring for the dog’s every need, prisoners discover their capacity for responsible, patient, and affectionate behavior.” Gayle Woods, executive director of the Second Chance Prison Canine Program (SCPCP), concurs. Based out of Tucson, the SCPCP connects inmates at two correctional facilities in Florence, Arizona, with shelter dogs. These teams then tackle curriculums ranging from puppy training to basic obedience to cultivating specialized skills related to serving the disabled. As Woods explains, the fact that prisoners are effectively aiding both the animals and society is inevitably linked to their personal transformation. “We worked with one inmate who essentially said to us, ‘I am at a point…where I feel like I need to give back to society because I took someone’s life. I can’t undo what I have done, but maybe if I can give back, something good can come out of it.’”
Improving the Lives of People and Animals
Sister Pauline Quinn’s extensive experience with prison-pet programs dates back to 1981 and has given her reason to attest to the enormous good that does indeed result from their existence. She operates the Pathways to Hope Prison Dog Project, which has started prison-pet partnerships that stretch from Maine to California and in between. Program regimens vary, depending in part on what the dogs are being specifically instructed to do. On the whole, however, inmates are encouraged to interact with animals as much as possible, from feeding to potty walks to belly rubs. Quinn emphasizes that the canines in question receive exceptional care.“All the dogs are socialized and loved. They have regular checkups, are fed well, and are given the opportunity to play. They sense that they’re regarded as special, and I believe that adds to their lives.” In many prison-pet partnerships, dogs spend the duration of training—which typically lasts anywhere from six weeks to a year—residing within the prison system, frequently sharing living space with inmates in their cells. Other correctional facilities feature a special dormitory area set aside for participants, while some prisons house animals in kennels or cooperate with animal-welfare groups to routinely transport dogs from off-site locations. Volunteers generally take future service dogs for trips outside prison grounds regularly to familiarize them with everyday settings where they’ll eventually be expected to assist disabled people. Apart from saving the lives of unwanted animals, the majority of prison-pet partnerships aim to provide training that primes dogs for a fulfilling existence once they complete instruction. “A dog leaves the program more mature and better able to understand the expectations of his human housemates,” Stevens says. “This in turn allows a pet to more easily adapt to a new adoptive family.” But as win-win as the aforesaid scenario sounds, prison-pet partnerships aren’t for just anyone. Most programs include careful selection and subsequent supervision by both prison staff and animal-welfare volunteers. Dogs that are overly aggressive often don’t qualify for involvement, as is also sometimes the case for offenders convicted of animal abuse or inmates who demonstrate unsatisfactory behavior behind bars. Those prisoners deemed eligible are usually expected to undergo a rigorous screening and interview process, followed by subsequent training sessions that prepare them for their roles as temporary guardians. Such measures are necessary to ensure that prison-pet partnerships provide the greatest possible benefit to both participants and the larger communities that incarcerated men and women will eventually rejoin.
Contributing to the Community
“It’s critical to keep in mind that society also reaps several rewards from these programs,” Woods says. “In some cases, the disabled receive highly trained service dogs at no cost, allowing them greater independence at home and within the workplace. In other scenarios, the general public has the opportunity to adopt well-mannered pets. And the overall community is positively influenced by a pre-release program that helps prepare prisoners to function as productive citizens.” Some inmates who serve their time are so motivated by their experiences with pet-prison partnerships that they sign on as volunteers even after they re-enter mainstream society. Yet for those men and women who remain behind bars after their canine companions venture forth to new guardians, it goes without saying that their efforts nonetheless leave indelible marks on people’s lives. Woods cites the sentiments expressed by the disabled recipient of an SCPCP dog named Chance: “Chance provides unconditional love, laughter, and a sense of security. He gives me so much more than assistance—having him by my side at work is like getting paid to hang out with my best friend. I’m extremely grateful for…the volunteers and the devoted inmates who have worked and continue to work so hard with these special dogs.” More Information:
Pathways to Hope Prison Dog Project PathwaysToHope.org