Connie lathers a small brown Terrier in a waist-high tub. She wears a T-shirt and waterproof apron, and wields the gallon jug of shampoo as though it were much lighter. Her face is pink and shines from the heat of dog dryers and exertion.
“She’s a little mad about this whole ordeal,” Connie says, referring to the bather, Bella, as she massages soap down the dog’s legs and paws, rinses, and scrubs her muzzle with no-tears shampoo. She works quickly with the confident, gentle touch of a seasoned pro.
She is a pro. Mawyer has been working with dogs since 1995, and, if all goes well, she’ll continue until her release date, which is currently set for 2017. An inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, about an hour south of Seattle, she is one of 13 women working in the Prison Pet Partnership Program  (PPPP). Only a select few of the total inmate population of more than 800 learn kennel management and grooming skills and provide these services to the public.
On the face of it, PPPP is a simple voc/ed program, preparing women to work in the pet-care industry after they are released. But unlike toiling in the kitchen or the laundry, or participating in horticulture, construction or welding workshops, women in this program work with warm, furry, affectionate creatures. In prison, that makes all the difference.
“Because most of the programs deal with inanimate objects, you don’t continue to grow emotionally,” says Mawyer, who was 21 when she began serving her time. “This program has allowed me to mature. I think I would have shut down. You can’t do that with dogs. You have to leave your emotions open, therefore you’re emotionally learning and growing.”
In addition to her grooming duties, Mawyer is training a pair of rescue dogs, Alaska and Stella, to become service, seizure or therapy dogs, or to live as pets. Most program participants eventually train rescue and shelter dogs.
“It seems like no matter what dogs have gone through,” Mawyer says, “they still come out being very loving, helpful and ready to do something for you. That’s the miracle of working with dogs.” It’s tough to reconcile Mawyer’s crime with her compassion and insight, except to imagine that she illustrates the rehabilitation ideal.
The Power to Change
“It is important to feel and be loved, and a dog can do that for you,” Sister Pauline said in an interview with Lifetime Television, which made a film about her, Within These Walls, in 2001. “This is the first step in healing; then you can continue on and grow to even greater things.”
It is this simple idea that persuaded Dr. Leo Bustad, a veterinarian studying the human-animal bond at Washington State University, and a pioneer in animal-assisted therapy, to advocate for Sister Pauline’s dog-training program, which she launched at the Gig Harbor prison in 1981.
By 1991, the private nonprofit organization, working under contract to the Department of Corrections, expanded its mission to include kennel and grooming services. Inmate trainers have helped place more than 700 dogs in working partnerships or in homes as “paroled pets.” And the program has been emulated, at least in part, at prisons all around the country and internationally.
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
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.”
Ramone came a long way under her care, but after two months with an adoptive family, he failed to bond with them, and was returned to the prison shortly before Christa was to be released. She had served a little less than half of a 14-year sentence, and is serving the balance of her sentence on community placement. She was permitted to take Ramone home with her.
“It was really scary, because they’d never let anybody take a dog home before. It was like, ‘Oh great, she’s just getting out on the streets, so let’s give her a dog,’” Christa remembers. “It was just crazy. But I love this dog and I couldn’t imagine being without him and he couldn’t imagine being without me.”
She moved to Bellingham, north of Seattle, where she now lives with two of her three teenage daughters and Ramone. Soon after her release, she landed a job in customer service at the Whatcom Humane Society, where she worked for more than two years. On the day we talked, she’d just received a glowing review after six months working the front desk for a veterinarian—a stellar comment not only on her job performance, but also on her own efforts and the program that helped her land on her feet.
Groom and Board
Photograph by Stephanie Felix