08 February 2012

Programs help dogs and inmates rehabilitate together

By Jenna Smith, Juris Blogger
Many of us grew up asking our parents, “Can we get a puppy?” For those of us whose parents responded, “yes,” we were blessed with a cute and playful little friend. We were also blessed with being forced to assume some adult responsibilities at a young age. Although I never had my own puppy, both of my brothers adopted puppies when I was young. I was always given the task of “dog-sitting.” This included getting up at 5 A.M. to let the puppy go outside so he wouldn’t go to the bathroom on mom’s rugs; cleaning up the occasional accident before mom found out; training the dog to “sit, speak, and stay”; taking walks, which usually meant being dragged around by an over-eager puppy with a desire to mark his sent on every tree in the neighborhood. Then there were scary moments, when the puppy became too curious with a wasp nest or a blood-shedding confrontation with an older, more aggressive dog.

Puppies, and pets in general, teach their owners responsibility. Pets can also teach people compassion. Pets can be dependent on their owners for their basic needs; this requires a lot of care and patience. Selfless and eager to please, puppies love their owners, whether he or she is a missionary or a murderer.

Responsibility and compassion are two very important qualities that a person should have. These qualities make us better and more productive members of society. However, there are some members of the community that may be thought of to lack such qualities – those individuals behind bars. Violation of the law and intentional infliction of harm towards the community are the antithesis of responsibility and compassion. But is it possible for some hardened criminals to become more responsible and compassionate? Cue dogs.

Many states’ departments of corrections have implemented programs that unite dogs with inmates. Usually, the dogs in these programs are from animal shelters and are sometimes found to be difficult to assimilate into the community. This is something the inmates can relate to. In many of the programs, inmates train the dogs to become more adoptable. Corrective behavior works both ways here – dogs learn obedience and inmates learn responsibility. At the end of the programs, the dogs are able to be acclimated into the community, and in my opinion, so are the inmates. Here are some of the programs states have enacted.

“Paws on Parole” is a partnership program between the Florida Department of Corrections' Gainesville Correctional Institution Work Camp and Alachua County Animal Services. According to the program’s website, professional dog trainers volunteer their time to teach inmates how to train dogs in socialization techniques and basic obedience.

The Missouri Department of Corrections sponsors a program called, “Puppies for Parole.” This program allows some offenders to have the opportunity to become trainers to rescue dogs. The offenders teach the dogs basic obedience skills and help the animals learn to socialize. Additionally, this program hopes that it can make these dogs more adoptable in order to lower the number of canines currently euthanized in the state. The program boasts many benefits: offenders acquire the skills to support successful rehabilitation, reentry, and public safety. The offenders in essence are “re-paying” the communities of Missouri for their bad acts.

The program has had “a profound effect on the inmates,” the director of the program, George A. Lombardi, is quoted as saying. “The dogs gave a remarkable impact on MDOC offenders, improving offender behavior and giving offenders incentive to maintain excellent conduct records.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections has created, “The Save Our Shelters Pen Pals Program.” This eight-week program places hard-to-adopt dogs with carefully selected inmates. By the end of the program, the dogs are adoptable and ready to become a part of the community.

In 2008, Patriot PAWS, a prison program designed to teach inmates to become dog trainers, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice entered into partnership to have prisoners train service dogs for Disabled American Veterans. According to the program’s website, “This partnership affords prisoners the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than their confinement [and it] is intended to provide help not only for disabled veterans, but opportunities for prisoners to have a job while serving their sentence, learning a career trade and giving back to the community.” Additionally, 11 women have been paroled since the program started and at least nine others are working in dog-related programs. The recidivism rate is zero.

The first program to bring prisoners and dogs together was established in 1981 by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun. The “Prison Pet Partnership Program” allows inmates to train dogs to live and work with people with disabilities. Since its inception, similar programs have sprouted up all over the nation – California, Wisconsin, Missouri, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire.

“Prisoners rehabilitate death-row dogs,” said Dr. Joe Scroppo, the director of North Shore University Hospital’s forensic psychiatry program in Manhasset, NY. Scroppo, who is also the former supervising psychologist at New York City’s Rikers Island prison, stated that even though research is limited on dog-inmate programs, the results are “promising” as these programs have positive impacts on inmates.

“It seems to decrease depression and other kinds of mental health problems. It’s kind of like a therapy for them.” Plus, the dogs “love all the attention.”

From these programs, life in prison has become more tolerable and in some cases, life is given purpose for some inmates.

In the article, “Prison Dog Programs,” Rebecca L. Rhoades writes that both prisoners and shelter animals “face isolation and rejection, but when their paths merge, they often give each other hope, as one prisoner becomes the salvation of the other.” However, she notes that “as animal welfare programs continue to grow within the U.S. system of corrections, there are those who believe that such programs place the animals in danger and shouldn’t exist. But the benefits far outweigh any potential, and to date unfounded, negative effects.”

In Washington state, Sergeant Pattie McCarty of Stafford Creek Corrections Center says, “having a dog in a prison living unit brings down the violence. The dogs break that high level of tension you get among offenders. They’re whole demeanor changes. The dogs just have this calming effect on the offenders . . . Offenders who know they’re giving back to the community have a better attitude, and that helps prepare them for when they get out of prison. The dog is a reminder of the outside world that they can touch. It really is amazing what a difference a few dogs can make in a prison environment.”

Photo courtesy of the AP

Parolee Armando is seen with one of the rescued pit bulls
at the Villalobos Rescue Center. The facility, which employs
over 200, currently has 225 pit bulls, two french bulldogs
and 19 cats.
What about life beyond the bars? The Animal Planet show, Pitbulls and Parolees follows the life of Tia Torres, owner and operator of the Villalobos Rescue Center, a rescue facility dedicated mainly to pit bulls, one of the more misunderstood breeds of dogs. In 2006, she created “The Underdawgz” program, which recruits parolees to take care of and train pit bulls so that they may become adoptable. One of the parolees employed by the Villalobos Rescue Center, Armando, was a career criminal but attributes this program to helping him find his way. His biography states that he relates to the “maligned pit bull breed.” He now travels around the country telling his story as the official spokesperson for the rescue center. He is what the show deems to be the ultimate success story.

If the American correctional system is really based on rehabilitation, I think there is no better way to rehabilitate unadoptable dogs and hardened criminals than by implementing these programs. Overall, both dogs and prisoners have something to gain from these programs. In some instances, dogs that were once deemed unsuitable for adoption and headed towards euthanization are able to become a part of the community after the training program is completed. In some ways, the inmates are more equipped to become productive members of society. They now have the compassion and responsibility needed to survive a life beyond bars.

Jenna Smith is a second year student at Duquesne University School of Law. She is currently a judicial extern in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, Civil Division and a student representative for Kaplan PMBR. Jenna earned her undergraduate degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, with majors in International Politics, Latin American Studies, and History, and minors in Spanish and Global Security. She will graduate from Duquesne University School of Law in 2013, and can be reached at smithj12@duq.edu.