Courtesy of Missouri Department of Corrections
Puppies for Parole
There’s something special about how the responsibility of caring for another affects the way we care for ourselves. In prisons throughout Missouri, it isn’t just the offenders who are being rehabilitated into society. Previously unwanted and unadoptable dogs are getting a second chance as well with Puppies for Parole, a program that pairs dogs with offenders.
Joseph Denti, imprisoned at the South Central Correctional Center (SCCC), has found hope.
“Puppies for Parole provides an opportunity to help the dogs, the community, and us, all at the same time,” he says. “When our dogs graduate, one word comes to mind—pride. We take pride in what our dogs achieve. They come to us broken, and we help them put their lives back together. I’ve been locked up 21 years, and I realize how big of an opportunity this is. We put 110 percent into it. It’s important to us because the program not only helps the dogs, but it also helps us as well.”
And that’s precisely the point. The program began when George Lombardi, currently Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, was approached by C.H.A.M.P. (Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities) in 2002, while he was Director of Adult Institutions. C.H.A.M.P. is a program that trains and provides service dogs to disabled individuals free of charge.
The staff at C.H.A.M.P was interested in working with the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in Vandalia. Though at first reluctant, Lombardi agreed, and the prisoners began serving as trainers in 2002. Certified trainers came in and taught inmates how to train dogs in a humane way, and the dogs lived in crates in the prison dormitories. Prison staff saw dramatic improvements in the overall attitudes and behavior of the inmate handlers, and after completing the training program at the prison with their handlers, more than 50 dogs have been placed through the C.H.A.M.P. program to owners with disabilities.
When Lombardi became director of DOC in 2008, he brought that success story with him, with a plan and a dream to expand the program even more, and Puppies for Parole was born. He wanted to help prisons build relationships with their local communities, to help prevent dogs from being euthanized, and to raise morale among inmates and staff.
He presented the idea to wardens from each of Missouri’s correctional facilities. The program is purely voluntary and run by donations; there is no government funding, a condition that continues today. Dave Dormire, warden of the Jefferson City Correction Center, was the first to express an interest, and other institutions soon followed. Two and a half years since it began, the program is still expanding, and over 250 dogs have been adopted after completing the two-month training program. And while there are other similar programs across the country, Lombardi doesn’t know of any other programs with this much jurisdiction.
The participating prisons work closely with local animal shelters to pair rescued dogs with offenders.
“Most of these dogs are unadoptable—neglected, anti-social, disobedient,” Lombardi says. “We want to improve their adoption chances.”
Each handler volunteers to care for a dog, and each facility has its own handler selection process to ensure the dogs will be in safe hands. The rehabilitation process for the dog includes lessons in verbal commands and general obedience skills. All dogs must pass a Canine Good Citizenship Test at the end of their training before graduating, after which they may be adopted by a home outside of the facility. Local shelters are in charge of the adoption process at the end of the training period, and while it is often sad for the handlers to say goodbye, they know their hard work and loving care has its rewards—and awards.
In 2010, the program was awarded the Governor’s Award for Innovation after being nominated by Dr. Keith Schafer, Director of the Department of Mental Health. Schafer became interested after hearing about the program at a state meeting. He helped two of Missouri’s mental health facilities adopt housedogs that had graduated from the Puppies for Parole program. They’ve had tremendous response from their patients, as the dogs provide so many benefits to their owners—happiness, love, acceptance, and laughter.
Lombardi sees many benefits at the prison as well: “This has had a positive impact on the behavior in our prisons, building relationships between inmates and with staff. It’s a safer, better atmosphere.”
He explains other programs within the institutions have also flourished because the inmates open up to the staff and each other.
“In a prison, it’s considered taboo to show emotion or love, but you can with a dog, and you get back that absolute, unconditional love,” Lombardi says. “It’s pretty powerful to see tears in the eyes of a big man who stoops to pet a dog for the first time in 25 years. That’s the kind of emotion only the dogs can evoke.”
Plus, helping inmates make a difference in their community is part of the healing process. “It’s part of Restorative Justice,” David, an offender-handler at SCCC, says. “By helping the dogs become more suitable for adoption, we are giving back to society. That means a lot to us.”
There are many parallels between the offenders and the dogs that participate in this program, but the one most telling is how unconditional love can break through barriers.
“We know we have a good thing here,” David says. “It’s very therapeutic for us. We’ve learned a lot about having patience because of this program. Our communication skills have improved because of this. The list goes on and on. It’s funny because the baddest of the bad will see one of these dogs and be like ‘Come here boy.’ Their voice will get softer, and their whole mentality will change. These dogs affect all of us.”