It’s a Tuesday morning. Inside Thompson Hall, in a colorfully decorated basement-level room, a small group of women, each with a Labrador Retriever puppy at her side, sit in a circle. Barbara, a matronly woman with short brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses stands and commands her 16-month-old yellow Lab, Danny, to sit and stay. She then walks out of the circle into an adjacent area set up like an apartment and closes the baby gate behind her. She lies down on the floor as though injured and calls out: “Help! Danny! Help!”
Danny’s ears prick up and within seconds, he springs into action. Running toward the sound, he dives over the gate to Barbara’s side. With an urgent tone to her voice, she tells him to get the phone. Danny finds the phone on a table, picks it up with his mouth and obediently drops it into Barbara’s hand. A chorus of cheers rings out and Danny is lovingly praised for a job well done.
This is a typical scene at weekly meetings of this group, members of which are training assistance dogs for people who are deaf or have physical disabilities. But there is nothing typical about the trainers: They are all inmates at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.
The meeting breaks up around noon and the women and their canine companions head upstairs to the dormitory-style cells: 6-by-12-foot cinder-block rooms with a window and just enough space for a cot-like bed, a stainless-steel toilet and a dog crate. The only bars are plastic, part of baby gates meant to keep the dogs inside.
Eight times a day, inmates must be in their rooms to be counted by corrections officers. “Count” gives the inmates and their dogs a few minutes to relax after a long morning of regimented training. Leashes and other gear are removed and stuffed toys—of which there are a plethora—are tossed about. The puppies lick their trainers and wag their tails furiously, happy to be home. When the corrections officer shouts the end of count, the dogs immediately go to the door—they too know that this signals the time to go outside.
This three-year-old program is called the Prison PUP Partnership and is run in conjunction with National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS). A nonprofit organization, NEADS has been training dogs to assist people who are deaf, hearing impaired or physically disabled since 1976; and since 1998, they’ve been placing puppies with inmates in various correctional facilities.
The prison program’s goal is to speed up the training process for assistance dogs. According to Assistance Dog International, a coalition of programs providing support to people with disabilities, the average wait for an assistance dog is two years. Volunteers typically take a pup into their home for 16 months, exposing them to a variety of people, places and sounds. Following this socialization period, the pups spend five months in professional assistance-dog training at NEADS headquarters in Princeton, Massachusetts.
Because the dogs in the prison program live with the inmates 24/7, the inmates are able to focus on the dogs and do advanced training in the same timeframe, which reduces the time spent on professional training by several months. In addition to producing assistance dogs more quickly, the program has also had a dramatic impact on the inmates and even the corrections staff.
While recruiting inmates to train assistance dogs may seem unusual, such programs have been around for some time. Many believe the first program of this type was founded in 1981 by Sister Pauline Quinn at Washington Correctional Center for Women; that program is still in existence today (although no longer run by Quinn). Since then, dozens of “prison pup” programs like it have cropped up in both male and female facilities around the country, and more are started each year. NEADS, which collaborates with a total of five prisons in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, first began its puppy program at Quinn’s urging.