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Pen Pals

An unusual partnership brings an animal shelter and emergency evacuation site inside prison walls

  • A small group of carefully screened inmates has been selected to staff the animal shelter at Dixon Correctional Institute, as well as walk and play with the pets. From left, Bryant Hayes, Ron Johnson, and James Ziegler take three dogs out for a romp.

by Jim Baker

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, and the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina gave birth to many unexpected partnerships. Some dissolved as a semblance of order returned to the Gulf Coast, but others—like that between The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and a medium-security prison in Louisiana—have grown into beautiful friendships.

In the days and weeks after the 2005 storm, The HSUS’s temporary shelter for animals at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzalez, La., filled up with strays and pets rescued from the flooded region. Animals kept coming in, though, and finding suitable shelters—in an area whose animal facilities had been severely impacted by the storm—became a major challenge.

That’s when Amanda Smith, a prison administration staff member at the Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI), happened to read a newspaper article about the sheltering needs at Lamar-Dixon, and asked then-warden James “Jimmy” LeBlanc if the prison could help by fostering displaced animals on prison property, which includes 2,500 acres of land and several barns.

LeBlanc, now secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections, liked the idea and started talks with the department and The HSUS. Within weeks, 150 dogs and 52 chickens, ducks, and geese rescued from the New Orleans area were on their way to a converted dairy barn on prison property. Eric Davis, director of field services for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, assembled a team of volunteers to transport the animals to DCI, where a team of two correctional officers from the prison’s canine unit and 10 inmates helped with unloading and setup.

During the next three weeks, 45 cats and another 20 dogs were added to the temporary shelter. Volunteers and inmates fed and watered all the animals, cleaned their cages, and spent time walking the dogs, many of whom were high-energy pit bulls. “These [inmates] would go out there and play Frisbee with them for hours … walk them, and take care of them, and fuss with them. The inmates were just great,” Davis says.

  • Dixon Correctional Institute inmate James Ziegler bathes newly arrived Chiro, a Chihuahua, at the new animal shelter at the Jackson, La., prison.

Some of them would keep working with the dogs, even after their shift was over. “A lot of guys really enjoyed it. They said, ‘If you ever get dogs, I want to work with them again!’ They didn’t care how many hours they worked out there at that old barn; they just love animals,” recalls warden Steve Rader.

Those were the humble beginnings of a project that’s now benefiting the prison’s inmates, animals, and East Feliciana Parish (where the prison is located), which has no animal control department or shelter of its own.

Thanks to a $600,000 grant from The HSUS, and cooperation from the Louisiana State University (LSU) School of Veterinary Medicine, Dixon Correctional Institute is now the site of an emergency evacuation facility and a newly completed animal shelter, with a fully equipped surgical suite, that will serve as the parish’s holding facility for strays. The public can visit the animal shelter to search for lost animals, as well as to adopt new pets. Both structures are located inside the prison’s secure perimeter. Not only did prisoners provide the labor to build them—they’ll also be caring for the animals housed there, cleaning cages and kennels, walking dogs, feeding and grooming the animals, and giving them all some much-needed TLC.

Inmates will staff the 9,375-square-foot emergency shelter—a covered, open-air barn with a capacity of about 300 kennels—in the event of a disaster, when animals can be housed temporarily. The structure, finished in spring 2008, was already put to use, when Hurricane Gustav struck the region that fall. Thirty-three dogs and 39 cats were evacuated from the LaFourche Parish Animal Shelter in Thibodaux and transported to the brand-new emergency shelter at the prison, where inmates bathed and walked dogs, changed kitty litter, and cleaned kennels during the three days the animals stayed in the shelter.

The animal shelter is run jointly by the prison and the LSU veterinary school. Under faculty supervision, students in the school’s HSUS-funded shelter medicine program perform spay/neuter surgeries and provide medical care for the shelter’s animals.

One correctional officer supervises the shelter, which is staffed by six inmates who were carefully chosen based on their records. “We wanted to get guys that want to do right and want to give back, and we were able to find some good guys that fit the bill,” Rader says.

The inmates will benefit from the work as much as the animals will, according to Deb Parsons-Drake, senior director of animal care centers for The HSUS. “[Prison officials] are providing skills to these people, so that when they do get released, they have had 10, 15 years of on-the-job training,” she says. “It is a perk, and the prisoners are vying for it, because they have learned how much animal interaction provides comfort, and chills them out, and helps them deal with whatever the problems are that put them in prison in the first place.”

The presence of animals at Dixon Correctional Institute has proved to be good for the morale of the prison, renewing the spirits of those offenders who don’t get involved in other programs and activities. Just the experience of walking a dog can bring joy and a sense of connection. Maybe that’s because the dogs don’t judge the men looking after them, even though they’re wearing prison uniforms. “They don’t care that he’s got a number,” Rader says.

Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine

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