From a dog’s perspective, the inside of a prison doesn’t look much different than the inside of an animal shelter. They are still surrounded by bars, concrete, and a chain-link fence. The scenery may be similar, but when dogs are fostered by inmates in the prison system, the animals are gifted with something they simply can’t receive in overcrowded shelters — the one-on-one love and attention of a human guardian.
The story of how dogs are fostered inside a Massachusetts correctional facility is the topic of a new film by directors Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup called Dogs on the Inside.
The idea for the film began when Cunningham heard about an organization called Don’t Throw Us Away, a mutually beneficial program that matches rescue dogs with inmate handlers for eight weeks of rehabilitation and training.
“I reached out to Michelle D. Riccio, the founder,” says Cunningham. “She loved the idea of a film being made about her program.”
The resulting documentary follows along as rescue dogs come into the prison program lacking the skills many potential adopters look for in a pet, and eventually leave with a good training foundation in basic obedience. The inmates who work with the dogs develop skills and a sense of purpose.
“The dogs reminded the inmates that they’re human,” explains Seirup, a lifelong dog lover himself who witnessed the transformative power the dogs have on their convicted trainers.
“The dogs return the love right back to the inmates. I could see it — the restored confidence, the second chances,” he explains.
While the inmates develop relationships and skills as dog handlers, the rescue dogs get a chance to learn that human hands don’t always hurt them. The film shows dogs who were abused, neglected, and abandoned entering the program and finally getting the love they deserve. The inmates have something positive to focus on, and dogs who may never have found a foster home on the outside flourish under the undivided attention.
“What was really cool about the prison as a potential foster home is its available space,” says Cunningham, whose film notes that rescue organizations can only help as many dogs as they have foster homes for.
In the future, more dogs may may be able to be fostered inside prisons. According to its website, Don’t Throw Us Away is seeking to expand into new institutions.
The story of dogs and inmates helping each other is uplifting, but getting it shot wasn’t so easy.
“There was quite a bit of red tape to gain access to the prison,” explains Seirup. “But once we did, it went really well.”
Because the filmmakers wanted to build trust with the inmate handlers, they made their first visit to the prison without any camera equipment. At that time, the inmates were just finishing a training cycle with a group of dogs slated for adoption.
“The dogs served as the broker of that trust, and the dogs really served as that general common interest and relieved any kind of tension,” explains Seirup.
Once they had permission from officials and the trust of the inmate handlers, Seirup and Cunningham were able to film the men over the course of eight weeks, documenting as the inmates trained, fed, and bathed their canine companions.
While entering a prison for the first time was stressful, it was probably not even the most dangerous location the filmmakers visited. The film shows how dogs who entered the prison were initially rescued from rural areas in the South. The animal rescuers the camera crew followed reported being shot at while trying to save dogs — an activity others viewed as trespassing.
“I think initially there was a little bit of fear because it’s a little bit more of the Southern culture of walking onto someone’s property — they’re going to question why you’re there,” explains Seirup.
“We were a little leery about it,” explains Cunningham, who adds that the experienced animal rescuers they were documenting put the filmmakers at ease.
“It was almost like we could just follow them and we knew that we were in good hands. They’re fearless, and they’re confident about their mission and what they’re doing.”
While documenting the mission of those dog rescuers, Cunningham and Seirup were pursuing their own mission as filmmakers and friends of animals.
“We hope that people are touched in the heart, feel more compassionate, and see the benefits of having a dog in their life,” says Seirup.
“I just hope we can stir people to get involved with helping to tackle the animal overpopulation issue,” he explains, adding that adopting, fostering, and spaying or neutering pets can all help the cause.
Read more about prison dogs:
About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.