By Willard Shepard and Sandra Esquivel
Prisoners and puppies might sound like an odd couple, but the two are becoming roommates in jails and prisons across the country. Wardens have implemented programs for inmates to train dogs. The hope is that the dogs will reduce the number of inmates who end up back behind bars.
Florida prison inmates will train hundreds of dogs this year. In some places, data show these programs significantly reduce the number of inmates getting into trouble again. But the NBC 6 Investigators discovered in the Florida prison system, no such data exists.
Justin Burns says he and his fellow inmates at Sago Palm Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County are proof the program is changing prisoners’ lives.
“I had an addiction to pain meds…and it led me to prison,” said 26-year-old Burns. He was convicted of robbery and will serve about six years behind bars. Today, Burns looks kisses and dotes on Jafar, the golden retriever he is training to become a service dog.
He is one of about 20 inmates at the facility training dogs to help people with disabilities. Trainers and their dogs live together 24/7.
“You have gangs. You have drugs…There’s people in here doing that…I’m trying to change my life. When you come into the dog dorm you realize no one is doing that and everybody’s on the same page as you,” said Burns.
Inmates train dogs to do everyday tasks like being the support for someone to stand, turning lights on and off. Wardens say the dogs provide a positive and healthy environment for criminals turned dog trainers.
Warden Robert Hendry said having a dog behind bars is such a privilege for inmates it has dramatically reduced bad behavior.
“We average 9-10 disciplinary reports a week here at Sago…the ones that we have in the program over the last twelve months have not had any disciplinary actions,” Hendry said.
Richard D’Pugh, once an inmate himself, thinks he knows why.
“These animals make a difference. They should be in prisons…it teaches you having some care and consideration for something besides yourself,” said D’Pugh.
Volunteer Patty Armfield, from New Horizons Service dogs, trains inmates to train the animals. “It gives them permission to be soft and to be gentle… and, yeah, I do think it teaches them to love,” said Armfield.
NBC 6 Investigators wanted to find out if participating in dog training programs slows the revolving door in and out of Florida prisons. It turns out the Department of Corrections doesn’t keep records. They said they don’t even know for sure which inmates have participated. But the Philadelphia prison system does keep track.
The inmates in Philadelphia participate in the New Leash on Life USA program which teaches basic obedience to shelter dogs to increase their chances of getting adopted. It’s a win for the dogs and judging by the data, for inmates, too.
According to Philadelphia prison stats, 41 percent of the inmates released in 2013 will be rearrested in Philadelphia county after one year. Compare that to just 14 percent of inmates from the canine program. Inmates like Johnny, who only shared his first name, is counting on a paid internship working with animals once he gets out of prison.
“God sent me here for a purpose and it’s not to spend my life in jail and if it’s to save dogs’ lives I would really, really appreciate that,” said Johnny.
The Florida prison system may not be able to quantify the effect of the canine programs once inmates are released, but Holly Schneider says it has forever changed her life. She has Hammer, a service dog trained by a Florida inmate. She is grateful she says for the training he received.
“Big hug and thank him for everything because I just feel I don’t know where I’d be without him,” said Schnieder.
Burns is also counting on a brighter future when he goes home. He wants to go to school to become an a/c technician and would like to earn extra income training dogs. He says he knows giving up Jafar is going to be tough. He admits he shed a few tears when his last service dog went to away help someone dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jafar will likely help someone with PTSD, too.
“I just hope he can make someone as happy as he made me, cause he definitely has,” said Burns.
Burns will be eligible for parole in about a year. The warden says he wants to expand this program. Most wardens do restrict some inmates from these programs such as sexual predators and violent offenders.
Now that NBC 6 Investigators asked for the numbers, the Florida Department of Corrections says it will track the programs’ impact on inmates staying out of prison.
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