These women, who have committed crimes such as driving while intoxicated, larceny, manslaughter, even murder, don’t look like criminals. Their prison-issue uniforms—denim cargo pants, burgundy t-shirt, gray sweatshirt—could easily be mistaken for street clothes. And as they train or play with their feisty puppies, they seem just like you and me. The prominent yellow identification tag clipped at the chest and the plastic identification bracelet on a wrist, however, mark their status.
York Correctional is a unique state facility. The 425-acre campus comprises both maximum- and minimum-security facilities for male and female inmates. Maximum-security inmates can, through good behavior, earn the privilege of moving to minimum-security, where there are fewer restrictions and fewer blatant reminders that this is a prison—no heavily barred doors or windows, for example. The campus has lots of big, beautiful trees, and there’s even a large lake where the puppy trainers take their dogs swimming on hot summer days.
But not just any minimum-security inmate can become a puppy trainer. At York, inmates must first undergo a rigorous screening process that demands that they have a clean discipline record at the facility, a high level of maturity and motivation, and at least 18 months left on their sentence (the maximum time it takes to complete the dog’s training.
“They’re really careful about the inmates they choose,” says Paula Ricard, NEADS Puppy Program Coordinator. “And because we’re … in there once a week, we’re keeping a close eye on the relationship between the dog and the trainer. If we had any reservations we’d do something about it. But I’ve not had any problems. Ever.”
One Tuesday I visit York and spend the day with the trainers, their dogs and Ellen Hurlburt, the corrections supervisor in charge of the puppy program. I’m amazed at how obedient the pups are and how many advanced tasks they can perform: pulling wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, and opening doors. But what surprises me are the candid comments the inmates share after their morning training session.
“She’s a great listener. That’s something I never had in life,” says Heather, an outgoing young woman with a wiry red bob, of her dog Bella. “And I’m giving back to the community; I’ve never done that.”
“There are times when I don’t want to do this anymore. But when you see the end result, it’s worth it, even if it’s frustrating,” says Lisa, a thirty-something Hispanic woman, of her black Lab, Perkins.
Deborah, a soft-spoken sandy blonde who’s training Arby, the program’s first rescue dog, has difficulty holding back tears as she speaks about her experience: “I suffer from severe depression. [Arby] gives me a reason to get up in the morning. He’s a rescue, but he rescues me everyday.”
In the afternoon, I follow a group of inmate-trainers to school. We head to the maximum maximum-security side of the facility, where classes are held. Along the way we pass small groups of other inmates. Some barely notice of the dogs, but others light up, smiling and saying hello in child-like voices.
As we pass through a metal detector and a large steel door closes behind us, Ellen explains that touching is forbidden in prison. Even though it’s a safety precaution meant to curb harassment and violence, living every day without being touched is hard to imagine—no handshake hello, no arm on the shoulder of a friend, no hug after a hard day. But inmates with dogs have a unique opportunity—they have a friend who will unconditionally love and support them and whom they can hug and kiss to their heart’s content.
“We know from research that the presence of an animal has a healing effect,” says Maryellen Elcock, vice president of programming at the Delta Society, a nonprofit whose primary goal is to improve human health through animals. Among the many proven positive effects Elcock cites are lower blood pressure and stress levels, a decrease in loneliness and an increase in self-esteem, all of which inmates are likely to need—in spades.