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Montville - Four retired greyhounds from West Virginia are spending some time in the doghouse otherwise known as the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center.
The former racing dogs from the Tristate Greyhound Park were delivered to the prison on July 27 and have spent the past few weeks being socialized and undergoing basic obedience training in preparation for their adoptions.
And while the greyhounds are being saved after a life on the racetrack, their inmate handlers are also being rescued in a way, as they gain insight into themselves.
"To love something in here, in this environment, has opened up something in my heart that has been closed for so long," said Joseph, an inmate handler whose last name is being withheld per state Department of Correction policy. He and his inmate partner, Eugene, are training a greyhound named Roman.
Eugene said that when Roman came to them, he was standoffish and unable to make eye contact.
"We were able to get him to open up to us and trust us ... and that feels good," Eugene said.
Eight inmates are participating in the newly created Connecticut Greyhound Program. The DOC has partnered with We Adopt Greyhounds Inc., based in Glastonbury.
A former correction officer and volunteer at WAG, Sandie Evans, approached Officer Steve Curran about the possibility of inmates training the greyhounds. Curran got approval from DOC officials. He said the inmates were selected based on their prison status, ticket disciplinary history and criminal offense.
For 10 weeks, the dogs are assigned two inmate handlers and get to live with them and partake in their everyday lives at the prison.
"These guys had no light in their eyes, and now they do," Curran said. "They have confidence, a sense of responsibility and hopefully gain skills that they can use once they get out."
Evans said the race dogs at the track are let out of their cages only four times a day and have to learn the most basic skills, like sitting and climbing stairs.
"They are used to racing, so when that door opens, they are ready to run," Evans said. She said that three of the four dogs already have homes waiting for them.
Johanna Lewis, operations director for WAG, created the training curriculum for the inmates to use to teach the greyhounds. She comes to the prison on Saturdays to teach the curriculum while volunteers from WAG visit daily to work with the dogs and handlers in the prison yard.
"The training has gone so well that we blew through the curriculum in five weeks," Lewis said. "The inmates are taking their job seriously and are even giving suggestions on how to get them ready for life in their new homes."
The inmates are training the dogs to pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen test, which certifies that the pooch has good manners and is obedient. Lewis said the inmates also are doing agility and obstacle course training with their charges.
"They are doing good and giving back to society," Lewis said. "They are the protectors of these dogs."
Lewis said the inmates get to name their dogs. Inmates Dave and George named their dog Scooch, in honor of the correction officer who selected them for the program; inmates John and Matthew named their dog Gracie, a take on the Latin word "gracilis," meaning slender or thin; and inmates Chris and Michael named their dog Vincent, after the first dog their correction officer ever had.
"It's teaching us to be creative and kind," Michael said. "Prison is not the most loving place, and we have all been able to experience love because of this."
Deputy Warden Stephen Bates said the program is going so well that he would love to see it start up again after the 10 weeks end.
"I see how these guys are responding, and it has been just great," Bates said. "I would definitely recommend it to other facilities."
Inmates also participate in other animal rescue programs, including the Second Chance Large Animal Rehabilitation Facility, a collaborative effort between the state Department of Agriculture and the DOC that rescues farm animals that have been taken from their owners.
A dog training program at York Correctional Institution was suspended after the National Education for Assistance Dog Services pulled out of the prison earlier this year. John Moon, director of programs and communication at NEADS, said the prison didn't have enough dogs to sustain the program and it was becoming increasingly inefficient and costly for trainers to travel several hours a day to the prison.
IF YOU WANT TO HELP
The cost of training the greyhounds is approximately $1,500 per dog and is completely covered by WAG. Anyone who is interested in sponsoring a prison dog can send a tax-deductible donation to: We Adopt Greyhounds Inc., P.O. Box 1114, Glastonbury, CT 06033. Include a note that your donation is to be used for the prison greyhound expenses.