Inmates say Training Dogs to Help Disabled Helps Their Self-Esteem
Women Prisoners Train Service Dogs
By CHERYL WITTENAUER, Associated Press Writer
VANDALIA, Mo. (AP) It's well past visiting hours at the women's maximum-security prison off a desolate stretch of Highway 54 in northeast Missouri. But a guard waves an odd caravan into the complex's inner yard.
Janet Cole and Mary Ruth of CHAMP Assistance Dogs Inc. usher a group of canines into the prison this frigid Tuesday night as they do every week.
The dogs, primed by the smells and sights of a place they find friendly, wiggle and thump their tails. They're glad to be back.
Inside, a dozen female inmates await them eagerly. The mask worn to survive institutional life comes off. The measured emotional control expected in such places crumbles. Girlish chatter, howls of happiness, and maternal coos take over.
"We long for the training days, we can't wait to see them," gushed inmate Laura Marcrum, 40, of Memphis, Tenn.
Welcome to Housing Unit Two, B-wing, also known as "The Dog House," where 12 female offenders train dogs to assist the disabled. It's the first Missouri Department of Corrections program of its kind.
The women, many of them serving life sentences, say the program makes them feel "human" or "normal" again: the dogs offer a much-needed emotional outlet; the work lets them see themselves as something other than a person who committed a crime.
"To give something back of such magnitude, you know your heart is going out those gates to somebody else," Marcrum said.
The first program to partner dogs with offenders was started in 1981 in Washington state by Sister Pauline Quinn, now of Maine, who said a dog helped her recover from a difficult childhood of abuse and homelessness. Years later, she devised a way to let dogs help institutionalized women feel better about themselves.
Since then, similar programs have sprung up in a handful of states.
Vandalia's assistance-dog training program got under way in late May, 3 1/2 years after CHAMP's proposal for a similar program at the men's prison in Pacific was turned down.
Cole, the Florissant group's executive director, said she was wary when Vandalia assistant superintendent Laraine Lamb approached her about starting a program in the women's prison.
"I give her all the credit," Cole said. "She wrote a dynamite proposal that won over (Corrections director Gary) Kempker and the staff."
Lamb wanted to see development of the emotional bonds between women and dogs, bonds that tend to carry over into other relationships.
"So much of what they're doing mimics parenting," Cole said. "We're teaching positive reinforcements. The things the women are learning affect everything they touch."
CHAMP, or Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities, is one of three St. Louis-area organizations that provide service dogs to the disabled. The nonprofit organization trains or places for training 16 to 18 dogs at a time, many of them from shelters or dog-rescue groups. Thirteen dogs currently in service do everything from switch on lights, to fetch medicine, open refrigerator and cabinet doors, even call for help on a special 911 phone.
What CHAMP found in the inmates was a consistent and dependable group of potential trainers who weren't limited by the time constraints of people on the outside, Cole said.
Inmates at the prison were so eager to participate they left the prison's "high-paying" but less fulfilling jobs in computer programming or garment making to work with the dogs for virtually no salary. Wages are not disbursed, but work credits earn the inmates points for canteen items like soda or cigarettes.
"Money is a high motivator, but this work is more positive," said inmate Shelly Fossell, 32, of Festus. "It changes people's lives."
On a Tuesday night, Cole and Ruth, CHAMP's head trainer, reviewed with the women the past week's progress in training Finders and Keepers, 10-month-old male golden retrievers. The third dog in the program, Rebock, a 2-year-old female border collie mix, had been away for a week visiting a potential client. They were happy to hear that Rebock had transferred her affection for her trainer, inmate Christine Peanick of Arnold, to the boy.
The next day, Ruth led the women through such exercises as "doggie zen," where the trainer keeps the dog's attention on her rather than the treats she has in each hand. The dogs practiced turns, holding an object in their mouths, targeting objects that clients will need them to pick up someday.
"What the dogs have accomplished has blown everyone away," Cole said. "We're finding very talented women with a real knack for training."
Cole and Ruth bring other dogs to visit, future assistance dogs not yet full grown and "comfort dogs" that the women stroke and speak gently to.
In a place where hugs or any demonstration of physical affection is not permitted, the dogs fill the emptiness of prison life and offer something to love, the women said.
Emotions are "a part of life you don't expect to have taken away from you," said 35-year-old inmate Lisa Suter of St. Charles. "That we're able to touch (the dogs) and express the love we feel ... I cry just thinking about it."
The dogs live with the women throughout their yearlong training. Each dog shares a cell with four inmates, its primary and secondary trainers and two assistants.
The dogs follow the women everywhere, to the phone and TV room, the dining hall, even medical appointments. Occasionally, the women take the dogs to other housing units, because "everyone wants a little bit of that love," said inmate Janet Baiter-Bohn, 46, of Ste. Genevieve.
Slowly, it seems, the dogs are changing the culture of the institution. Many of the offenders said they've noticed that even the most hardened of their prison colleagues "crumble" around the dogs. Cole said the "entire feel of the institution has softened in some way."
Even conduct violations have declined sharply among women on B-wing since the dogs arrived, said Lamb, who wants to expand the program.
Meanwhile, the women say the dogs are teaching them patience, trust, commitment, teamwork, how to listen, even be a better parent.
"It gives me hope," said Sabrina Kinsey of West Plains, who's served 14 years of her 32-year sentence. "It allows me to still be human, to still care, love, give. This program says there's hope for everybody."
Reproduced with permission of the Associated Press
© Copyright 2003 The Associated Press