Sunday, August 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Second chances for dogs and Inmates

The dogs were either neglected or abused and most likely wouldn’t be adopted. A number of the inmates have committed brutal crimes and will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Others, who have committed lesser offenses, will be released back into society. Together—the shelter dogs and inmates—are working toward a second chance.

The dogs and inmates are part of the Puppies for Parole program, which began in February 2010 at one maximum-security prison in Jefferson City, MO. Since then, the program has expanded to 19 out of 20 prisons in Missouri. (The only prison not involved in the program is a short-term corrections facility.) One thousand inmates have been part of the Puppies for Parole program as dog handlers, and they have saved 2,254 dogs.

“The dogs have a remarkable impact on the Missouri Department of Corrections offenders,” says George Lombardi, Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. “They are helping to improve offender behavior, and give offenders incentive to maintain excellent conduct records. Staff morale is also enhanced by the presence of the dogs.”

The dog handlers and dogs live in one housing unit at each prison. “They know the rules, and if there is any trouble, they are out of the program immediately,” says Lombardi. “Being around these dogs gives them a purpose. Once the dogs are trained, the shelters adopt them out.”

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  • Lombardi is a dog person. He understands the power that dogs have over people. The Puppies for Parole dogs are selected by animal shelter workers. “They don’t choose very aggressive dogs,” says Lombardi. “The dogs in the program are ones that won’t be adopted out. If they weren’t chosen for the program, they would either be euthanized or spend the rest of their lives in the shelter. It is not unusual for many of the dogs in the program to be carried into the prison because they are so fearful. They have been neglected or abused, just like many of the inmates.”

    Having worked as a warden and as the Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, Lombardi knows inmates. “This program has such a positive impact on the inmates, the staff, the dogs, and the community,” he says.

    People in the community took notice. Judy Finnegan, M.S., L.P.C., and Associate Vice President of Special Projects at Comtrea Community Treatment, Inc., a comprehensive community health center, nominated Puppies for Parole for the 2011 Governor’s Award for Innovation. “We received the award, and furthermore, Judy was a catalyst for expanding our program,” explains Lombardi. “So now some of our dogs are adopted out to people with mental health problems, soldiers with PTSD, people in hospice and palliative care, people with mobility issues, Autism, and other physical and mental illnesses.”

    According to Lombardi and Finnegan, everybody from the inmates to the dogs, the prison staff, and the people who adopt the dogs win. “In one instance we had two inmates who hated each other,” says Finnegan. “One was a militant hardcore white racist. The other was a militant hardcore black racist. These two guys couldn’t stand to be near each other. Whenever these guys would meet each other there would be issues. When this program came to their prison, they both wanted to be handlers. They were told no way unless they agreed to get along. And, if they were accepted, and if any issues came up, they would be booted out immediately.”

    In the Puppies for Parole program, between 10 and 20 dogs live with between 20 and 40 offenders. At the start of the program, these two inmates gave each other a lot of space. “The funny thing that happened,” says Finnegan, “was that their dogs liked each other. So these guys were forced to be closer together. They would sit on the same bench and share dog training tips. Did they become friends? That’s doubtful. But, did the problems between them stop? Yes!”

    At least 95 percent of all prisoners in Missouri get released from prison. “The question we ask ourselves,” says Lombardi “is do we want those prisoners released back into our society? Our offenders in this program are making restitutions with their communities and our prisons are safer.”

    Another inmate in the Puppies for Parole program, who is serving a life sentence for a violent crime, became quite upset when he learned how someone treated the dog in his care. “Annie came to the prison and hid,” says Finnegan. “She was so scared. When this inmate found out that Annie was abused, he wanted to hurt this person. He wondered, ‘How could anyone harm this little dog?’ Then a light bulb went off, and he realized that he [had] hurt others.”

    The Puppies for Parole program is funded through donations. “So many people are willing to step up and do the right thing,” says Lombardi. “Royal Canin donated food for the dogs in the program. Overseeing this program is a privilege. It helps rehabilitate our inmates. The dogs in the program go to good homes, and the relationship between the corrections officers and inmates has improved.”

    For more information about Puppies for Parole, click here. You can also visit their Facebook page, which is often updated with new Puppies for Parole stories. To watch a video of Judy Finnegan talking about Puppies for Parole, which was organized by Purina at their Better with Pets summit, click on the video.

     

    Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and wildlife for parade.com and other publications. Her blog, Pet News and Views, focuses on animal advocacy. She is the author of The Everything Guide to Working with Animals and a few children’s books.

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