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January 3, 2011

Prison Pals: Second Chances for Dogs and Inmates

Innovative programs in two state prisons give new outlook on life to pets and people

All Animals magazine, January/February 2011

All Animals Jan Feb 2011

Tim Mueller

by Ruthanne Johnson and Jim Baker

Lobo sat frozen in his crate in the gymnasium of the Montana Women’s Prison. HSUS rescuers had recently removed the 6-year-old Australian shepherd mix from a home 250 miles away, where he’d been living with nearly 100 dogs.

At the prison, Lobo would soon prepare for eventual adoption by learning obedience and coping skills from inmates selected as trainers in the Prison Paws for Humanity program.

But years of living without human interaction, and of fighting packs of nearly feral dogs for his food, left him shell-shocked in the new environment.

“He wasn’t moving his head, just his eyes. He didn’t know what to do,” says inmate Tiffanie Fitzpatrick. “I sat there with him, trying to build that bond.” Back in Fitzpatrick’s room, Lobo would hide under the bed, cowering whenever someone tried to pet him. Evidence of the brutal hierarchy in his previous home abounded: “We found scars everywhere on his body when we first bathed him,” she says.

Under the tutelage of Fitzpatrick and inmate Jazmen Whaley, Lobo’s personality began to emerge. The first time he really romped in the play yard, Fitzpatrick notes, he crouched down with his wagging bottom in the air, seeming to grin from ear to ear. He even learned to take a treat from Whaley’smouth: “He puts his arms up on my shoulders and licks my nose,” she says. “He’s meek and mild-mannered.”

HSUS staff had hoped Lobo and two other dogs from the Montana property would blossom with extra TLC from the women living in the prison’s “Dog Pod.” When Lexi first arrived, inmate Twila Hallford had to hand-feed her. “She was really scared, but you could tell that she wanted that attention.” The pair’s bond was cemented while Lexi stayed in quarantine recovering from an infection. After she was spayed, she began chewing on bones, playing fetch, rolling over for stomach rubs—even getting into the garbage.

Inmate Emily James has rehabilitated Leo, whom rescuers found panting and shivering in a debris-filled garage on the hoarder’s property. Along the way, she’s learned about putting another’s needs before her own. “It’s such a great feeling to know that I’m there for him. He looks at me in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been looked at by anybody.”

The Montana dogs aren’t the only ones benefiting from prison time. In Jackson, La., The HSUS helped fund the construction of a shelter built by inmates on the grounds of the Dixon Correctional Institute, along with a barn to temporarily house animals during disasters. Prisoners who clean kennels, walk dogs, and feed and groom animals consider the job a perk, and not just for the skills it provides, says Deb Parsons-Drake, senior director of animal care centers for The HSUS. “They have learned how much animal interaction provides comfort and chills them out,” she says, “and helps them deal with whatever problems put them in prison in the first place.” Maybe that’s because the dogs don’t judge the men, even though they’re wearing prison uniforms, says warden Steve Rader: “They don’t care if he’s got a number.”

In 2005, Rader observed similar bonds during an experience that planted the seeds for collaboration on the project. In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, The HSUS’s temporary shelter in Gonzalez, La., filled up with strays and pets rescued from the flooded region. Prison officials offered to help, and hundreds of animals were soon on their way to a converted dairy barn on prison grounds, where inmates walked dogs and even played Frisbee. “A lot of guys really enjoyed it,” Rader says. “They said, ‘If you ever get dogs, I want to work with them again!’… They didn’t care how many hours they worked out there at that old barn; they just love animals.”

» Watch video: Prison Inmates Caring for Shelter Pets

» Read highlights from the current issue of All Animals

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