Saturday, 14 April 2018

Unconditional Love

I saw this story some weeks ago and wanted to publish it, but other events took over. It reminds me of the Cat A prison I used to regularly visit that had a huge aviary in the visits area, now long gone sadly. It's not rocket science that a way to help heal emotionally damaged people can be through interaction with animals, particularly dogs, who give unconditional love.   

How these homeless dogs are giving inmates ‘new purpose in life’

LUNENBURG COUNTY, Va. -- You don't often hear of celebration happening inside a prison, but a group of inmates at the Lunenburg Correctional Center is celebrating a special milestone. As of this week, 50 dogs have been adopted through Fetch a Cure's Pixie's Pen Pals since June 2016. That's when Counselor Kristal Winstead became the program's liaison at the prison.

"It softens people, I mean how could you look at that little face and those big brown eyes and not ease up a little," she said. Many of the prisoners have been sentenced to serve decades behind bars for a variety of crimes. "The prison environment in general, it can be a bit dismal," said Shaddai Omalara, who enrolled in the program nearly three years ago. "Sixteen years of being in prison, sometimes your emotions shut down."

A dozen of the men at the Lunenburg facility were selected to be part of the Pen Pals program. "There was just a job opening and I put in an application, came to an interview. They asked me a few questions. I told them how I felt and I guess I was the best candidate at the time," said Shane Cubbage, who joined the program three years ago and has been incarcerated for 15 years.

They have to pass a series of tests and maintain a certain status at the prison, before they get paired up with a shelter dog in need of guidance. "The traditional shelter setting is so stressful for the dogs and a lot of them just shut down. But having the chance to have all the one-on-one time and attention and the behavior training and the socialization, it brings these dogs out of their shells," Fetch a Cure Pen Pals program manager Emily Clanton said.

It's a rare kind of rehabilitation for both man and beast. "I requested to come to this institution specifically for this program here," Omalara said.

"This is a completely rewarding experience," said Michael Ingram, who is about halfway through serving his 20-year sentence. "I mean we get to have a new purpose in life training these dogs." Tamale, Silverbell, and Tennessee are three of the six dogs currently living inside the Lunenburg prison. "They get to live with us in the cells," Omalara said. "They live in their own little cage, but a lot of times we like to let them come out and interact with us."

Each canine shares a small cell with its primary handler and secondary handler, which can get a bit cramped. "The kennel does take up a lot of space, but you learn to maneuver pretty well," Cubbage said. Though the setup can be a tight squeeze, the handlers say the close quarters are crucial. "We get to work on training in the cell. We get to interact with them 24 hours a day. It's such a beautiful thing," said Omalara.

Coordinators of the Pen Pals program say the training takes a lot of dedication. "We had one here named Rusty that had seizures and one of the handlers would actually have to hold Rusty until the seizure subsided and the other handler would have to time it," Winstead said. "I mean to me that’s phenomenal." The prisoners and pups also meet with Fetch a Cure trainers once a week as part of the program. "It`s not just a normal prison job," Clanton said. "You're saving these dogs' lives."

During the meetings, the teams show off what they have accomplished and set goals for how to move forward with training. "It gives them a sense of responsibility and self worth, I mean some of them have been locked up since they were 17 or 18 years old, so they've grown up in prison," said Winstead.

The trainers use the Canine Good Citizen program, recognized as the gold standard for dog behavior, to assess whether the pups are ready to be adopted. The evaluation consists of 10 objectives including coming when called, sitting and lying down on command, accepting a friendly stranger, and reacting appropriately to another dog.

"They call him bulletproof. That’s a nickname for him. They use him for therapy dogs as far as other dogs," said Kevin Green about his walker hound partner, Tennessee. Green was first chosen for the Pen Pals program at Lunenburg in 2010.

The test can take weeks and sometimes months to pass, depending on the dog. A lab mix named Lucky Duck just found her forever home this week, after spending 10 months with her handlers at the prison.

"They might have been trash to somebody else but they end up being a treasure to somebody, you know another family," Winstead said. "This is a second chance for them and I’ve always said that. Just like these guys get their second chance, these dogs are getting a second chance,"

Some of the inmates say they can connect on a deeper level with the dogs because of their backgrounds. "They come from broken homes. They may have been stray dogs and a lot of the experiences these dogs went through, we can kind of relate to that," said Omalara. "A lot of these dogs come from very very bad situations, hoarding situations. You wouldn’t believe how many people just say I don’t want them anymore," Winstead said.

The prisoners say it can definitely be hard to see their four-legged companions move on, after they've transformed from a shelter dog to man's best friend. "He looked back with his big bug eyes like what are you doing to me," Cubbage said. "In prison, we try to be macho and stuff like that but when you see them leave, we definitely get a bit emotional," said Omalara.

But giving the dogs a new lease on life helps the inmates find their own. "That's the most rewarding experience for us, to see a dog get a second chance in life," Omalara said. Winstead has also created a scrapbook called the "Happy Tail Book" with updates on the dogs in their forever homes.

All families interested in adopting the dogs come to the Lunenburg Correctional Center for a meet-and-greet. Inmates say they love that part of the process because they can see the impact of their hard work. "It feels so good to be able to give back to the community and give back to people," Green said. "I see a lot of the families when they come up here, how grateful they are, and how pleased they really are to have one of these dogs."

​Silverbell got to go home with her new family on Thursday. A family stopped and fell in love with Tennessee in his first week at the prison, but he will be staying for a full month of training before he is officially adopted. Two new shelter dogs will be rotated into the program and brought to Lunenburg Correctional Center by the end of the week.


  1. Attachment, responsibility, purpose, are the cornerstones for a reasonably stable life. For some, those things can't be achieved with other people. There can be many reasons why that might be so.
    Todays blog reminds of a book I once read many years ago (80s I think), called life after life. I've had a quick search this morning but can't find it, though there seems to be quite a few with the same title.
    It was really a collection of observational studies on half a dozen people that had served life sentences and how they coped (or didn't) upon release.
    One of people in the book was a woman, who on release quickly found her life in chaos. She was recalled many times and the time spent on recall surpassed the time served on her original sentence.
    After serving 7years on her last recall, someone, perhaps her probation officer, suggested she might like to keep a pet, and she found herself with a dog.
    From that moment on her life changed, no more chaos, no more offending, and no more recalls. A sense of contentment or even happiness perhaps? Whatever it was, the animal had the most amazing and positive impact on the woman's life.



  3. In 1981, Sister Pauline Quinn began the first dog training program for prison rehabilitation, Pathways to Hope. She went on to help start other dog training programs across the United States, providing opportunities for inmates. She believed the programs would offer them renewed hope through the love of animals, just as she had experienced.

    At the age of 13, Quinn escaped an abusive home and was living on the streets in Los Angeles until authorities found her, she told The Compass. There was no procedure for runaways in the 1950s, so she was placed in adult psychiatric wards of hospitals, which only extended her suffering.

    “I was thrown away in 14 different institutions, 36 different times,” Quinn said. “I was abused and tortured. They chained us to our beds and sometimes tied my hands behind my back and then tied them to my ankles. One day — maybe it was night, I don’t know because there were no windows and the lights were kept on all the time — I began praying to God. I prayed that if he would help me change my life, as payment to him I would dedicate my life to helping others.”

    Over time, Quinn’s prayers were answered. When she was released, Quinn lived on the streets and found a stray dog that she took care of, a German shepherd named Joni.

    Quinn told the Los Angeles Times that dogs “love us unconditionally, and people need that — especially people who are wounded, they need to feel loved. So the dog is very much a healing tool.” Joni helped Quinn heal and eventually start the first prison dog training program. Her story and programs are a testament to the effects that animals can have. And her successful dog training programs have inspired others to follow in her path.

    Prison dog training programs pair animals with inmates who train dogs for adoption. Other training programs can prepare dogs to help people with physical or mental disabilities, to sniff out narcotics in airports or other public areas, or to track down wildlife threats at national parks. The programs can vary widely in purpose and structure.

    The Wall Street Journal notes that at a women’s prison in Washington state, “offenders here earn their way into the dog program by remaining infraction-free during their incarceration.” The job pays $1.41 an hour, triple that of work in the kitchen. Inmates stay with abandoned, abused and neglected dogs, caring for them and teaching them skills the dogs will use, such as ones that can help people who use wheelchairs. Some inmates receive canine therapy, where they can talk with a psychologist while a dog is by their side. The prison also has a commercial unit that offers kennel and spa services to locals.

    At the Lexington Correctional Center south of Oklahoma City, inmates provide obedience training for dogs that need extra attention. “The program, which accepts donations, has a two-year waiting list,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Most people give $100 for a month of training.” The dogs’ largest impact may be on the inmates. “They’re so loving, so understanding,” inmate Yolanda Pouncey said. “There are days when I come in all down on myself. But the minute that dog looks up and smiles at me, it just takes that all away.”

    With dog training programs, a common scenario is that one dog is able, in a way, to rescue two people. For Robert Butterfield, serving 13 years for robbery and stealing drugs, training a stray 60-pound black-and-white pointer mix named Mickey helped him overcome shyness around other inmates. It also helped with the isolation of prison. Butterfield’s training of Mickey resulted in the family of 9-year-old Celia Dutton adopting him.

    For Celia, who has Rolandic epilepsy, Mickey helped her get the sleep she needed. Infrequent seizures caused Celia to have facial tics and stomach pains from the anxiety. But with Mickey, things improved. Mickey began sleeping next to her at night, and he was there for her one night during a seizure. “He jumped on my bed and helped me not be scared anymore,” Celia said. Mickey refused to leave her side during the seizure.

    1. A literature review from the Massachusetts Department of Correction found that “anecdotal reports from staff, inmates, and recipients of the service dogs are overwhelmingly positive.”

      In a canine program for depressed inmates at an Oklahoma medium security prison, “Not only did the program decrease depression among those inmates, but the rates of aggression decreased among the inmates as well.”

      A service dog program at a Colorado correction center had a “positive morale boost among inmates and staff, as well as decreases in high blood pressure and anxiety in the dog handlers.”

      A study of human-animal interaction found improvement in social sensitivity among prison inmates in the treatment group, while scores dropped in the control group. In the Journal of Family Social Work, researchers found strong emotional and behavioral benefits for inmates in two Kansas prisons. “The men who train the dogs often form deep emotional bonds with the animals,” the researchers said. “It was not uncommon for men to get tears in their eyes when they spoke of giving up their dogs. Several inmates who were training small dogs in fact held them on their laps during our interviews; others were obviously proud of what their dogs could do and demonstrated this to us while we talked.”

      “Many of those we interviewed believe that the strongest positive they receive from the program is the change it effects in their attitudes and emotions. For these men the dogs are truly therapeutic,” the researchers added. “Participants believe that the dogs help them to deal with anger, teach them patience, give them unconditional love, and simply make doing time a little easier.”

      Grady Perry, a program leader at an Alabama prison, told The New York Times that the dog training unit’s incident rate is “almost nonexistent” and added that the “dog program just kind of calms everyone down.” These types of reports are common and are in part responsible for the rapid growth of prison dog training programs across the globe. “Unfortunately,” the Massachusetts Department of Correction notes, “there is virtually no systematic research on the effects of animal programs [in prisons].” More research is needed to verify and understand the extent of these trends.

      Inmates not only gain marketable skills by participating in dog training programs while in prison, but the programs encourage them to make use of these skills. “A lot of these guys have never been given a lot of responsibility, and this is their chance not only to be a responsible adult but a responsible citizen,” Perry said.

      The responsibility inmates are taught can help them once they are no longer in prison. For some inmates, they plan on taking dog training skills with them. USA TODAY says that inmate Teddy Teshone has learned discipline through an Atlanta prison dog training program. Now, Teshone wants to be a dog trainer when he leaves the prison.

      The Pontiac Tribune in Michigan reports that the nationwide recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent. However, Leader Dogs for the Blind, which pairs future service dogs with inmates, has a recidivism rate of just 11 to 13 percent.

      Only four of 35 inmates who completed one Georgia dog training program and were released have returned; without the program, coordinator Robert Brooks estimates the number would have been about 17. “It’s really made an impact because guys get in here and they get attached to the animal,” Brooks said. “There is someone else counting on them to make good decisions.” A Nevada Law Journal article on a dog training program in Washington explained that the average three-year recidivism rate in the state is 28 percent, but it is only 5 percent for inmates who have participated in the program.

    2. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the savings gained by dog training programs justify the lack of systematic evidence for the programs’ benefits. Not only is the cost for dog training much less in prisons than typical dog training programs, but prison programs are more effective due to the additional time inmates spend with dogs.

      A California prison told Capital Public Radio that the program has “a much higher success rate with puppies that are raised in prisons than we do in the general population.”
      People in homes who train dogs for the Leader Dogs for the Blind program in Michigan have a 40 percent success rate. Puppies raised by prisoners have a 70 percent success rate.
      A New York program, Puppies Behind Bars, has been more successful than traditional training. The program had an 87 percent success rate, compared to 50 percent for dogs trained by volunteers in the public.
      Dog training programs often rescue dogs that may otherwise be euthanized. The Humane Society of the United States says that 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year. Some programs specifically target at-risk dogs that struggle to get adopted — or dogs that may never be considered for adoption.

      Prison dog training programs are part of the larger effort to rehabilitate inmates. As awareness of the programs increases, more inmates could gain a chance to train, save and bond with dogs that can, in turn, enhance inmates’ lives. At Alvernia University, the online B.A. in Criminal Justice program includes learning about important trends in corrections and rehabilitation. Graduates are prepared to help make a difference in corrections, law enforcement, security and other criminal justice fields.

  4. Interesting!

    I've heard a TV show between Battersea Dogs home and HMP Wandsworth is to be filmed!


    "At Garth prison in Lancashire, where for several years inmates have been breeding budgies and giving them to older residents of the local community, a new governor has decreed that the programme must be wound up. Denying those doing bird some avian company is not just mean-spirited but may also prove short-sighted."

    1. From Feb 2017 (DM, I think): "In April 2015, four prisoners including one who was upset over the death of his pet hamster started a riot at Stocken jail in Rutland. They wrecked their cells and smashed furniture and light fittings, causing £12,000 worth of damage at the Category C jail.

      Garth prison in Lancashire – a Category B jail – allowed inmates to run a budgie breeding programme for several years. But a new governor decreed that it had to stop.

      The privileges scheme was tightened up under Chris Grayling, the former justice secretary. The new rules mean that new animals can no longer be brought in by inmates but prisoners are allowed to keep existing pets until they die."

  6. Freeview Talking Pictures TV @00.05

    Iconic British film, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.