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A Breeze of Goodness in an Unlikely Place

A model for a great shelter dog training program flourishes at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City

A model for a great shelter dog training program flourishes at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City

What It Is...

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
–FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
–MAHATMA GANDHI

The medium-security prison in Carson City, Nevada, has been in operation since 1862. It’s one of the oldest working state prisons in the United States, a relic from the days before the privately run prisons now proliferating all over the country even existed. It has all the stock images people have come to expect of a prison, including high fences topped with razor wire, an exercise yard, cells, and a room for solitary confinement that is literally a hole—it’s dug into the hard sandstone the prison is made of. In short, Nevada State Prison possesses all the qualities scary enough to make people stop and think before doing something that could land them inside such a place—including the separate area fenced in by razor wire where, until the prison made the transition from maximum-security to the medium-security facility it is now, prisoners awaiting execution were housed.

In spite of decades of reform, the general atmosphere at most prisons still matches Irish writer and one-time prisoner Oscar Wilde’s depiction of it: The vilest deeds like poison weeds,/ Bloom well in prison-air;/ It is only what is good in Man/ That wastes and withers there. Even in the 21st century, with prison reform having been on the public’s radar—even if peripherally—for over a hundred years, prison is never a happy place.

And it’s a common question now: Does time in prison really provide rehabilitation? Life within the prison system is often so violent, so bereft of hope, that it can remove motivations for change: Why try to better yourself? You’re already in prison, and the people around you are similarly depressed and desperate, violent and afraid; for an individual to rise above violence in such an environment often means that individual will be victimized. It’s one thing to decide to be a dove amongst doves; choosing to be a dove while surrounded by hawks raises the stakes considerably.

Yet thanks to the work of the Nevada State Prison staff and the Nevada Humane Society in Sparks, at least one kind of change is happening inside this prison—and it may be generating another kind as well.

A few years ago, warden Michael Budge put out some tentative feelers to explore the possibility of starting a program where inmates would help train shelter dogs. The program that resulted, called Puppies Up for Parole, has not only changed the lives of more than 60 dogs so far, it’s changed the lives of the inmates involved—and helped to alter the whole social environment of the prison.

What They Did...

Inmates learn the basics of humane positive reinforcement; the program at the prison is based on The HSUS’s Pets for Life training model.
When the idea of inmates training shelter dogs was suggested to Budge by Nevada Department of Corrections director Jackie Crawford, the warden followed up with calls to a few of the animal shelters in his area, and got an enthusiastic response from the Nevada Humane Society (NHS).

He met with NHS executive director Susan Asher, who brought along her operations director, Linda Hoke, and the group came to an agreement about which inmates would be allowed to participate in the program. Asher and Hoke wanted to ensure that the participating inmates had no record of sex offenses or domestic violence, which might indicate a higher risk for the dogs who’d be living with them. (Ironically, in making sure they didn’t recruit inmates whose crimes indicated being stuck in the cycle of violence, the program selected eight convicted murderers for the first set of participants. It may seem strange, but in this case, it was the issue of repeated behaviors that concerned NHS; the psychology that inspires a single murder is often very different than that which drives an ongoing compulsion to rape, molest, or batter.)

Budge and associate warden James Baca had their own stipulations: prisoners who wanted to participate had to have their GED/high school diplomas, and had to have prison records free of any disciplinary incidents for at least the preceding year. Participation in the dog training program is a privilege, a reward for good behavior; positive reinforcement works on people as well as dogs. Each dog has a primary handler; a second inmate acts as a babysitter when the dog’s main caretaker is busy.

Using the humane behavior training model of The HSUS Pets for Life program, Hoke and her assistant trained corrections officers who had volunteered to help. The officers and humane society staff in turn trained the inmates, ensuring that the training methods were followed correctly: positive reinforcement only and no physical discipline.

Asher and her staff handpick the dogs for the program, who are a mix of all ages and personalities, she says. “The dogs we choose to participate tend to be everything from young and bouncy adolescent dogs who’ve had no training whatsoever, no socialization, that are at high risk for euthanasia in the shelter environment, up to some older dogs who come in and need more polishing than we’re able to give them in the shelter,” says Asher. “It frees up kennel space here to allow other dogs to be placed for adoption.”

To make enough space for the dogs to live with the inmates, the cells along the old death row were expanded and combined; two cells now make one holding area large enough for the inmate to keep a dog crate. The dogs are crated at night, and if they need to go out, the prisoners take them into the exercise yard. “The old death row is separate from the rest of the prison,” says Asher, “and it has its own fenced-in yard. Granted, the fence has razor wire on top, but the dogs don’t care—they don’t go that high.”

Putting live animals into such a controlled, regimented environment had some challenges, says Budge. Having dogs around is a lot like letting in a bunch of kids who tend to run around and want to get into everything; staff have had to learn how to work the naturally heightened chaos of the canines into the rules and regulations of the prison.

“The exercise yard is closed in, but when the dogs need to go out at night, we have to alert the tower guards that a man is coming outside,” says Budge, who adds that staff buy-in has been fundamental to the success of the program. “We had a few officers who were reluctant about the program at first, but they came around once they saw the results. And it’s funny—a couple of the people who weren’t as happy at first have ended up adopting dogs after the training.”

How It Worked...

Staff of the Nevada Humane Society and the Nevada State Prison gather with inmates to take bouncy shelter dogs through the behavior training that will help them get adopted.
Employees of both the prison and the humane society were excited when the collaboration began, but neither group imagined exactly what a difference it would make. Having the dogs around, and having both prison staff and inmates involved in their training and care, has altered both the relationships among the prisoners and the relationships between prisoners and officers, says Budge.

“It changed the environment for everyone at the prison, for all the inmates housed here—which is about 700 people,” says Budge. “Because all of a sudden now they can show kindness. It would have been seen as a weakness before. ... It’s even helped break down the racial barriers that develop in prison—blacks, whites, Hispanics normally form groups, but we’ve integrated the handlers and everybody deals with the dogs and sees them walking in the yard. They want to pet the dogs, they want to become handlers, so they end up talking.”

As an outsider to the system, Asher says the changes that occurred in the prison amazed her. Her first visit to the prison for a tour of the grounds was marked by all the images one expects from a penal complex where violent offenders are contained. “We were escorted by SWAT team people with semi-automatic rifles and stuff. You know, it’s a typical prison yard—men were pumping iron, acting tough. Warden Budge hadn’t been there that long. ... But the next time I went out, after the dogs had been there a while, the whole atmosphere there had started to change. The inmates had put in vegetable gardens and koi ponds. People were conversing with each other instead of posturing. You just felt the tension level go down, especially when the dogs were out there. Prisoners who wouldn’t normally have anything to do with each other—and in fact would look for ways to harm each other—all of a sudden were interacting with the dog, through the dog. There was a lot of deflection going on.”

NHS provides vaccinations, sterilization, veterinary care, crates, leashes, harnesses, food, and toys for the dogs. It’s an expensive program, says Asher, largely because the prison is 30 miles from the shelter so gas costs for getting the behavior manager and her new assistant out there add up. Staff time is the other big expense, Asher says. There were some initial startup costs as well, such as the crates and training equipment for the dogs, but most of those are one-time expenses and the shelter got many of the toys and leashes and harnesses through donations.

That most of the costs were borne by the shelter was important, says Budge, who notes that Nevada is not only a conservative state, but one that was going through a 9/11-generated budget crunch when the Puppies Up for Parole program began. “In the past, the attitude of the public [towards prisoners] would be ‘punish them, warehouse them,’ ” says Budge.

Taxpayers wouldn’t shell out money for programs to make a prison environment better, says Budge, so his job with the program was twofold: Prove that no tax dollars were being spent on the program, and show that the program was an effective management tool for the prison. Budge has done both—in fact, he says some of his costs have actually decreased because of the dogs.

“I haven’t landed a helicopter here ... for an emergency in over three and a half years,” says Budge. “My overtime is way down; my incidents are way down. We rarely have any kind of assaults or fights here. So the almighty dollar is dictating that these programs actually enhance our security and in effect are cost-effective.”

How It's Growing...

A canine student demonstrates his growing understanding of “Sit!”
The first class of dogs graduated in September of 2002, and the program has so far helped rehabilitate over 60 dogs. People can even go out to the prison to do an adoption, and the inmates maintain a website for the public that lists the dogs they’re training. Hoke now does a lot of adoption counseling on site at the prison.

It’s been a winning combination for the prison and the shelter, says Asher, who says the difference in the animals who have gone through the program is amazing. “These dogs, we send them out and honest to God, because we don’t have the time or staff to work with all of them, they’re just euthanasia candidates,” says Asher. “And they come back and they’re these amazing dogs.”

It’s been a real inspiration to the staff of both institutions, she says. One dog had some bad tendon problems that required a $2,000 surgery; the humane society was prepared to pay for it, but instead the inmates and some of the officers raised the money for it. “We had the money in four days,” says Asher. “It’s been really cool for the staff to see that, that these guys who have no good outlook on life turn around and make something wonderful out of a dog that might have died.”

Budge says that many of the inmates have a natural empathy for the situations that have led dogs to become homeless. Many of the inmates come from backgrounds where they were abused or neglected as kids; some find themselves reflected in the animals who have become their companions. Since the program started, Budge says, several of the dogs who have come to the prison have had three legs—one due to an amputation after it had been abused. It was an upsetting issue for the prisoners, the warden notes. “It was like how prisoners tend to feel about sexual abusers,” Budge says. “They hated seeing a dog who’d been hurt.”

The day the dogs leave, either with adopters or to return to the shelter for placement, can be emotionally tough for inmates to handle, says Budge, but they seem to cope. Many have been able to correspond with the dog’s adopters, either directly or through the humane society if the adopter isn’t comfortable with providing an address—and since some of the corrections officers have adopted the dogs, many of the inmates still get visiting rights with the animals they’ve helped raise. And when the dogs leave, the wardens try to provide the handlers with a new project right away, says Budge. “We bring in another dog who’s a brat and that gives them something to worry about,” he jokes.

Since the program proved to be so effective, the Nevada Department of Corrections has expanded it in different forms to the women’s prison and to a minimum-security facility nearby. The program has been covered twice by Animal Planet, and Budge and Baca estimate they’ve received at least 140 calls and letters from other groups interested in it.

Through the Puppies Up For Parole program, both dogs and inmates are getting a second chance. And both are learning: the dogs how to be good, the men how to do good—and the presence of the animals has so changed the prison that inmates no longer fear being victimized if they show any signs of tenderness. “What is good in man” is flourishing and being nourished. More than vegetables are growing at the Nevada State Prison. Not a bad deal to find in a place where compassion was once viewed as a sign of weakness. And it’s proof of something animal people have long known: Dogs can bring out the best in the human animal—and vice versa.

 

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