Published on August 23, 2016
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REBECCA L. RHOADES
Sentence for Salvation
Behind the walls of correctional institutions, inmates find a renewed sense of purpose through working with injured and rescued animals.
In our nation’s correctional system, more than one million men, women and young adults are living their lives in confinement. They’re there for a variety of reasons—anger, drug abuse, robbery, murder—but in time, most will get a chance at a better future. Meanwhile, 15 million prisoners of a different sort are facing a possible death sentence. They’re animals with whom we share our world—dogs, cats, horses and even wildlife. They’ve committed no crime, but they will be punished unless someone steps forward and gives them a second chance at life.
Both groups face isolation and rejection, but when their paths merge, they often give each other hope, as one prisoner becomes the salvation of the other.
Death Row Dogs
At the Ashland County (OH) Humane Society, Taffy is just days away from euthanasia. The young blue heeler/beagle mix needs obedience training and socialization, and his luck is running out.
A few days later, Taffy is relaxing in the cell of Eric Roberson, an inmate at the Mansfield Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Ohio. Taffy and Roberson are one of almost 30 inmate/shelter dog pairs participating in the Tender Loving Dog Care program at Mansfield. The program provides the inmates with the opportunity to train and socialize otherwise doomed dogs, who are then adopted into good homes.
Roberson, who is serving 24 years for a 1992 murder conviction, has been in the program since Jesse Williams, deputy warden, special services, introduced it in 1998. He’s given a new life to 22 dogs; an additional 200 have also been saved.
“These dogs didn’t fit into society or they failed to meet the standards of somebody out there,” says Roberson. “They’re just like us. By working with the dogs, we’re giving them a chance to get back to a life that some of us might never see.”
Once matched with a dog, the inmates are fully responsible for the dog’s care: feeding, grooming, housebreaking, obedience training. After a few months of round-the-clock care, the dogs are ready for adoption. And according to Williams, there’s a waiting list “a mile long” of families waiting to adopt one of these special dogs.
Soon Taffy, like the other Mansfield dogs once sentenced to die, will find a new home. That time often comes too soon for the men who train and bond with them. “It’s like saying goodbye to your best friend,” says Roberson.
Where the Wild Things Are
In Marysville, OH, Sharon Young is serving time for aggravated murder. Once an angry woman, she had little compassion for other beings. “Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have wanted me near your pets,” she says. Now she is responsible for almost 400 animals each year.
On any given day at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, the basement of the housing unit is filled with injured or orphaned wild birds, squirrels, opossums, ducks and rabbits. Citizens rescue the animals and give them to the Ohio Wildlife Center (OWC), a private rescue organization that, in turn, sends them to the ORW to recover.
In 1994, Sue Anderson, a longtime volunteer at the OWC, was overwhelmed by the work of caring for the 4,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals who came through the center each year. When a friend who worked in the Ohio prison system suggested a partnership, Anderson jumped at the opportunity.
Inmates in the program are trained by Anderson to care for the various animals, and with the help of detailed guidebooks, they provide 24-hour nursing care. The women have to learn about the proper diet for each animal, which can include hand-feeding mealworms to birds, and such difficult techniques as tube-feeding baby opossums. As program aide, Young oversees all of the program’s activities, from documenting the intake and release of each animal to monitoring feeding schedules and keeping health records.
Once recovered, the animals are returned to the wild. “Our goal is to get as many animals healthy and back into their natural habitats as we can,” says Young. “It’s difficult to see them go, but it makes you feel proud to know that you’ve done something good and really miraculous.”
Recently, OWC expanded its program into the Marion (OH) Correctional Institution, a men’s facility.
On the Right Track
It’s tempting to wonder if the lives of the men and women who participate in animal welfare programs behind bars would have been different if they’d had such opportunities during their youth. Monique Koehler, founder of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF), believes the answer is yes.
In 1994, Koehler helped launch a program at the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore, MD, a residential institution for young men ages 12 to 20 that pairs troubled students with retired thoroughbreds. The Hickey program is modeled on one that TRF started at Wallkill (NY) State Correctional Institution in 1983. “We need to seize the opportunity to let the animals help these kids find something good in the world,” says Koehler.
“When I came here, I had an anger problem,” says Samuel H., age 16. “Working with the horses has really helped me out. It’s given me a good perspective on animals, on how to treat them properly.” For Allen R., also 16, the program offers something to look forward to each day. “You really want to get out there and work. I’d never been around an adult horse before. I like working with them.”
As part of the Hickey School’s only “living” classroom, the students are responsible for all aspects of care for the farm’s 29 horses. They feed them, groom them, exercise them, tend to their injuries and study their physiology. “A lot of the horses come from the racetracks,” says farm manager Andre Wheeler. “Some are in great shape, some are in poor condition, some are maybe a week or two away from dying when we get them. It’s the care of these young men that helps turn these horses around.”
Similar programs are in place at the Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, KY, and at Marion County Correctional Institution in Ocala, FL.
Each year, more than 24,000 greyhounds are retired from the racing circuit, according to the National Greyhound Association. Some are adopted as pets through rescue groups, but many more are euthanized. In Kansas, a lucky few go to prison.
About one year ago, Rich Booher, a corrections counselor at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, saw a local news report about racing greyhounds who were going to be euthanized. Since the inmates at Ellsworth were already training assistance dogs for Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services, Booher suggested fostering greyhounds and training them for adoption.
“There was a need,” says Booher. “We’re always looking for ways for our inmates to give back to society, and thousands of greyhounds are put down every year.” So Booher contacted Deborah Sanford of TLC Greyhound Adoption, and soon greyhounds were frolicking with inmates in the recreation yard and sleeping in cells. Each hound has a primary and a secondary handler, who teach the dog house manners and basic obedience. Most hounds leave the program after six to eight weeks knowing how to walk nicely on a lead and respond to commands such as sit, stay, down and come.
Almost immediately, other facilities within the Kansas Department of Corrections were inquiring about fostering greyhounds, and the program quickly spread to the Hutchinson and El Dorado facilities. Currently, some 30 greyhounds are being cared for in the Kansas system.
“We’re able to accomplish a great deal with the dogs because we’re with them 24 hours a day,” says Booher. “If you have that much time to devote to an animal, there’s a lot of reinforcement, and they learn very rapidly.”
Recently the Hutchinson facility expanded its animal welfare programs to include gentling and socializing wild horses in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Wild Horse and Burro Program. “BLM has quite an effort going on to adopt out these horses,” says Sam Cline, deputy warden. “But they’re usually difficult to adopt because they haven’t had much training. We’re working with the horses to make it easier and safer to place them with somebody in the public.”
Since summer 2000, participating inmates have worked diligently at building barns and stables, fencing in paddocks, laying rock to create roadways and hauling supplies and equipment. In March 2001, Hutchinson received its first shipment of 100 horses.
“We’re saving horses and changing men,” says Cline. “That capsulizes what we’re trying to do.”
New Leash on Life
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Phoenix, AZ, offers a variety of often-controversial programs designed to rehabilitate its inmates—tent communities, chain gangs, pink underwear—but in May 2000, Sheriff Joe Arpaio decided to open one of his jails to help rehabilitate some of the silent victims.
With space at local shelters at a premium, the sheriff’s office needed to find additional housing for the animals seized by its Animal Cruelty Investigation Unit. The 30-year-old First Avenue Jail, no longer used to house inmates due to plumbing problems, provided a solution.
Known as the MCSO Animal Safe Hospice (MASH), the facility houses dogs, cats, ducks and other animals until their cases have been adjudicated and they’re able to be adopted out to the public. Each dog has a private cell, while the cats live communally in one of the day rooms. So far, about 90 animals have been through the MASH program.
Caring for the animals are women who are serving their time in the tent cities. For 12-hour shifts, the inmates work with the animals, tending wounds and illnesses, cleaning cages, teaching basic obedience commands and helping them overcome fear and aggression.
“It gives the women a sense of accomplishment when they can help an animal overcome his problems,” says section commander Sgt. Dave Williams. “At the same time, the animal is helping them overcome their problems.” One inmate was asked how she felt about living in a tent while the animals live in air-conditioned quarters. “They didn’t do anything wrong,” she replied. “I did.”
After the case is adjudicated and the animals have recovered from their injuries, they are spayed or neutered and put up for adoption. MASH is a no-kill shelter, and all of the animals remain in the care of the inmates until they can be placed in suitable homes.
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. “Correctional institutions provide an ideal environment to change [animal] behavior,” says Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., director of ASPCA counseling services. “The animal doesn’t feel like he’s in jail…just the opposite. What we think of as a negative environment, the animal thinks is wonderful.
“Animal advocates need to support these programs,” LaFarge continues. “They’re helping animals who are otherwise relatively undesirable, and giving them a good chance at a new and better life.”
As testament to the rehabilitative properties of such programs, more and more correctional institutions are realizing what Jesse Williams of Mansfield has known all along—that these programs not only provide training and socialization for the animals, but also for the prisoners.
“Anything that’s good is hard to keep to yourself,” says Williams. “But these programs do a lot of good things, not only for the animals and for the inmates, but for the communities as a whole.”