The Washington program is unusual in that inmates participate in training all the way through and including facilitating the dogs’ transitions to their new lives. In the majority of these types of programs, inmates raise puppies who are finished and placed by trainers offsite. “Here, they see the whole spectrum of what they are working for,” says training coordinator Grace VanDyke. “They get to see their impact on the clients’ lives.”
That’s what inspires Jesyka. Her first dog in the program was a brindle-furred Greyhound mix named Leif. “He was really, really skinny and sick. He had ticks all over him,” says Jesyka, who overcame a serious bug phobia to clean him up. Jesyka, who has long carrot-blonde hair and talks a mile a minute, is more than halfway through a 15-year sentence. She sits at a picnic table in the center of the dog annex. Next to her are Leif and his person, Ashlee Eddy, and Ashlee’s mother, Carol Blakely. It’s been a long while since dog, client and trainer have seen each other.
Eddy struggles with serious learning disabilities and suffers as many as 30 petit mal seizures a day. Leif’s job is to nudge her hand to bring her out of a seizure or to stand guard and bark a warning if she freezes or collapses in a public place. Until Leif came into her life three years ago, the 22-year-old had to be kept under constant surveillance. Now, with Leif at her side, she doesn’t need so much monitoring. She can bathe alone, hang out with friends, walk outside by herself. She talks about working for a veterinarian someday.
“We went to prison to find freedom,” Blakely says. “I knew that a dog would help Ashlee. I didn’t think that it would impact all of our lives like it did.” For the first time in decades, Blakely is able to sleep through the night.
During the training, Jesyka and Eddy became friends, and the inmate-trainer basks in her young client’s obvious success. “In here, time stands still,” Jesyka says. “Your friends have had their jobs for 10, 15 years. Have their cars paid off. Part of their house is paid off. Kids. A husband. And what do I have? I have Ashlee. If it ever came down to that, if I ever had to say, you know, like when you go to heaven, What have you done? I’d say, ‘Ashlee.’”
Benefits Ripple Out
Like the motion caused by a rock in water, the benefits of Prison Pet Partnership Program ripple out. The inmates bond with “their” dogs and gain marketable skills, and come away with the confidence they have learned from their ability to transform neglected or unsocialized dogs into healthy and well-adjusted pets. They also avoid getting into trouble; inmates must be major-infraction-free for a full year and minor-infraction-free for 90 days—and stay that way—to qualify for the program.
They also appear to have better success on the outside. Of the 140 participants for whom program director Elizabeth Rivard has records, only four have re-offended (a little less than 3 percent, far below the state average recidivism rate for women of 35 percent).
Those with disabilities and limited means benefit too. They receive the life-expanding assistance and companionship of a service dogs for free. Assistance Dogs International estimates the average cost of training a service dog to be $10,000. Dogs also get a second chance.
“We would have a much higher success rate if we bred dogs for this purpose,” says Rivard. Only one in 15 to 20 dogs make it as service animals; the others become pets. “But the mission of this program is a second opportunity.” Rivard says it’s the “power of change” that has kept her at the prison for almost 10 years.
Christa knows all about dogs and second chances. She was an inmate working in the office at PPPP when a batch of year-old Poodle and Labradoodle puppies came in. Rescued after nine months in a hoarder’s basement, they were encrusted with feces. “You’d touch their skin and it would just crawl,” Christa says. Among them was a black Standard Poodle named Ramone. For six months, Christa dedicated every free moment to him. “You’re not supposed to sleep with your dogs in the program,” Christa says about the dog who shared her pillow. “I was like, yeah, that’s not going to happen.”