I am a prisoner at the California Institution for Women in Chino, where I have now been for 25 years. It is a hard and often cold world. On rare occasions, I would see dogs outside the fence, perhaps a stray or one belonging to one of the many dairies surrounding the prison. These sightings brought me both sadness and joy. How I longed to touch and be touched by these creatures, a joy that lived in my memories of “Before …”
Then one day, running late from lunch to my prison job, I turned the corner and there, right on the sidewalk, was a miracle: a lady in a wheelchair with a big fluffy Golden Retriever at her side. I stopped in my tracks. Who was she? Could I perhaps touch the dog? Would I get in trouble if I moved closer? A thousand thoughts flew through my mind while my feet moved forward of their own volition.
I stopped a few feet away and stared, awestruck. Other women stood close by in the same pose. Finally, someone asked if she could pet the dog. The woman in the wheelchair nodded and we approached ever so slowly.
When it was my turn, I went down on one knee and reached out, barely touching his fur with my fingertips. As I slowly stroked him, I felt his breathing, his soft, sun-warmed fur, and silently whispered a humble prayer of gratitude for this gift. When he turned his trusting brown eyes on me, the tears flowed down my face. I realized that the other women were crying too. I looked up and saw several prison administrators, utterly baffled, looking upon the scene: a lady in a wheelchair and a dog surrounded by a bunch of “lifers”—by society’s definition, the “most dangerous prisoners”—on their knees, crying as they reverently touched the dog. This was my introduction to Carol R. and Marty of the Canine Support Teams.
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Since that day, the California Institution for Women, in conjunction with Canine Support Teams, has started a Prison Pup Program inside the prison. We raise and train dogs to be assistants to physically challenged people. But that statement of goals doesn’t begin to touch what the program has accomplished. The unforeseen peripheral results of this program have been nothing short of miraculous in the lives of the women touched by these dogs.
I have seen women without hope or joy light up at the sight and touch of these wonders. I have seen angry, bitter women come out of their darkness to nurture and shower love on a dog. I have seen guilt-ridden and shamed women rise up to give their all to a dog who will give back to a life. For so very many of us, this act of atonement lifts some of the burden of guilt. I have seen even the hardest of gang-bangers soften and break into laughter at the antics of a dog. I have seen the shattered, battered, abused and damaged venture out of their isolation to reach out to a dog.
These are the things I see. What I know is the miracle these dogs have become in someone’s life after they leave us. We sometimes get pictures and updates of the dogs we have raised. To know that a child now has not only a helpmate but a companion—a friend to give her a measure of independence impossible before—is a gift to us beyond words. To know that the creature we taught and loved so dearly for a time has moved on to give such a grand gift; to know that we are, in part, responsible for this gift, is beyond expression.
We all suffer from the guilt and shame of what put us here, and this is a mighty and tangible atonement. A little part of us goes out with each dog, the burden lightens, joy grows, pride blossoms. Gratitude and humility suffuse us. As a trained and disciplined service dog emerges from a romping pup, a new, stronger, gentler and loving woman is born as well.