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On the Inside, Looking Out

Prison programs transform inmates as well as animals

San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?

Johnny Cash sang those questions in 1969, recording his hit “San Quentin” live during a concert at the facility that inspired it.

Cash sung that he hated every inch of California’s oldest state prison. But these days, some of the jail’s residents—and a few lucky dogs—might feel differently about the penitentiary.

It’s not that San Quentin’s magically become a nice place to be. It’s still the largest prison in the state, housing more than 5,000 inmates at the end of 2008. It’s home to the state’s only death row for male inmates, and the list of those currently housed there includes some of the most notorious and violent felons around. In 2005, a federal judge threatened to strip Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of his authority over the California prison system unless his administration dealt with ongoing problems at San Quentin and other state correctional facilities; the warden was fired later that year.

But 2005 also saw the beginning of a small, good thing: San Quentin began hosting Pen Pals, a Marin Humane Society (MHS) program that enables some carefully screened inmates to care for and train shelter dogs.

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