Thanks to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this article.
Inmates say training dogs unleashes hope
Doing hard time is easier for prisoners in program that teaches puppies to help blind.
By Sandra Eckstein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Susan Denise Brown hefts the squirming puppy into her arms and smiles as it licks her face. For a few moments, the bars and razor wire that surround the kennel full of puppies seem to fade into the background.
Brown is part of a group of Metro State Prison inmates who will spend the next year raising 10 dogs – Labrador retrievers and Lab-and-golden retriever mixes – at the maximum security prison in Atlanta. The puppies will learn skills that one day could help them become the eyes for a blind person or become a disabled person’s helper.
“You learn a lot about yourself and what you can do,” said Brown, 51, who is serving eight years for racketeering. “And you’re also giving back to society. It gives you the chance to do something to help others.”
The puppies learn how to share their lives, and their love, with people.
“We can’t do what we do with dogs raised in a kennel,” said Wells Jones, president of the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind of Smithtown, N.Y., which placed the puppies at the women’s prison. “We can’t replicate the love and caring and experiences they need to become well-adjusted dogs.”
Because training dogs to help the disabled can be time-intensive, a number of groups have turned to prisons to fill the need. Prison officials like the programs because they encourage good behavior, help inmates learn a skill and because the dogs can be a soothing presence in an otherwise tense environment.
And for the inmates, like the women at Metro State Prison, who often are facing years of regimented days behind drab walls, the puppies represent a bit of normalcy, a window of unconditional love and a feeling of accomplishment.
“It’s a prestige detail, a privilege detail,” Brown said of the assignment. “It gives you access to a lot of areas of the prison. It gives you a lot of freedom – and hope.”
Brown was accepted into the program in 2006 and just sent her first trained puppy to Southeastern Guide Dogs of Palmetto, Fla., which placed 29 dogs at the prison over the past four years. This year the prison system decided to bring in the Guide Dog Foundation, which is able to provide more dogs and uses slightly different training methods. Both groups breed their own puppies to assure health and temperament.
Now Brown is an adviser for the program, working with newcomers. The inmates take course work toward becoming a veterinary technician and also learn computer skills.
“It gives our inmates a vocation they can take out of here when they leave,” said Kevin Roberts, the prison’s warden.
That’s exactly what Martha Ann Ross is hoping to do. Sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery, Ross, 28, was afraid of dogs when she started the program two years ago. Now she hopes to make a career of working with animals when she’s released.
“I need 18 months to finish the vet tech program,” Ross said.
Patricia Lehn, manager of workforce development for the Georgia Department of Corrections, said several women from the program have gotten jobs at veterinary clinics after getting out of Metro. One is Cynthia Sturm of Mableton, who was in the first group of puppy raisers. She had worked at vets’ offices before she was sent to Metro, but the program taught her a lot more, and not just about dogs.
“I learned … a lot about getting along with people,” said Sturm, who served 2 1/2 years for a probation violation. “I had to work closely, 10 hours a day, with the inmates and get along. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I work better with everyone now.”
Sturm is working at Cumberland Animal Clinic in Smyrna, where she just received a promotion, and has continued raising guide dogs since leaving Metro in 2003.
“My first dog is in Florida with an elderly woman,” Sturm said. “My next dog is working outside of Chicago and my third dog is still in training.”
Victoria Malone, deputy warden of care and treatment at Metro, said puppy-raising is a plum job at the prison. Ten inmates and three aides, including Brown and Ross, have been assigned to work with the latest batch of puppies. To be eligible, Malone said, inmates must maintain a clean behavior record, have a diploma or GED, or be working toward one, and cannot be charged with an offense that was overly violent or cruel.
In their first month at the prison, the puppies, with names like Shipley and Annie and Tina, had only learned commands for sit and down. But by the time they return to New York for the last six to eight months of their schooling they will know commands like “find the stairs,” “find the car” and “find the elevator,” Lehn said.
Because the inmates are limited in where they can take the puppies, the puppies are sprung each Friday by a weekend family, which takes them to places like supermarkets and on public transportation. Lehn and several other staff members are weekend raisers.
Melinda Shaver, with Southeastern Guide Dogs, said Metro’s program has a good record. She said about half of the dogs trained there have gone on to become guide dogs for visually impaired people. The others become helpers and companions for the disabled or go into therapy or police work, she said.
Lehn, of the Corrections Department, said officials are looking to expand the program to a men’s prison in Valdosta.
“No one who has graduated from the program,” Lehn said, “has returned to prison after they got out.”