Paws go to prison for good cause

Darlene Blumenthal, left, an inmate at Janet S. York Correctional Institution, offers a treat to Alister, a six-month-old male poodle that she is training, part of the  National Education for Assistance Dogs program for its Prison PUP Partnership Thursday on the grounds of the Niantic prison facility.
Darlene Blumenthal, left, an inmate at Janet S. York Correctional Institution, offers a treat to Alister, a six-month-old male poodle that she is training, part of the National Education for Assistance Dogs program for its Prison PUP Partnership Thursday on the grounds of the Niantic prison facility. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - When service dog Jerri is working, with her vest and harness on, she's calm and alert.

But when her owner, Lori Brown, tells her it's "free time" and removes the dog's work attire, the two-year-old black Labrador goes into high energy "retriever mode."

"It's like, 'whoa, there she goes,'" Brown said.

Jerri is an affectionate service dog that graduated from the Janet S. York Correctional Institution's Prison PUP Partnership Program in June. She was back at the women's prison in Niantic on Thursday, this time with her new owner.

The Labrador retriever now belongs to Brown, a special education teacher from Southern California. Jerri will be placed in a classroom in a couple of weeks with special-education students in the third and fourth grade.

"My students with autism, this is their new best friend," Brown said.

Brown got the opportunity to come to York and meet the inmates who trained Jerri and others involved in the program. She said she immediately agreed.

"This is an incredible program. Everything they have done has impacted a whole campus of special education kids," Brown said.

The National Education for Assistance Dogs (NEADS), a nonprofit organization based out of Princeton, Mass., began the program at York 10 years ago. Between 90 and 95 percent of its graduated dogs are trained by inmates.

Although between 13 and 15 prisons partner with NEADS, York Correctional is the only prison in Connecticut. Lisa Brown, associate director for NEADS communications and online media, said 39 dogs have graduated from the York puppy program.

Inmates in the puppy program are low-risk offenders who reside in Thompson Hall, on the eastern portion of the prison. The women must apply for the program by writing a letter and then go through a "stringent" hiring process, which includes an interview. If selected, the women are trained to be handlers, and the dogs live with them in their cells and work with them seven days a week. They are responsible for the care and training of the dogs.

NEADS trainer Erin Wylie visits the prison every week for a two-hour training session with the inmates. She teaches them obedience, how to train the dogs to work next to assistance devices like wheelchairs and canes, daily tasks that might be difficult for disabled people, like turning on a light switch, and how to train them to ignore a squirrel when they're working.

"We want to make sure they are well rounded and can behave in public," Wylie said.

NEADS provides the state Department of Correction with dog food, treats and metal kennels for the program. Inmates make blankets and homemade toys for the dogs. They also raise funds to buy the dogs special treats, plastic toys and supplies.

There are minimum standards the participants have to meet with their dogs in an allotted time. For instance, having their dogs housebroken, training them to sit and stand on command and how to walk nicely on a leash.

"If they master it, they keep going," said Jen Bishop, a counselor at York who helps oversee the program.

Volunteers from the surrounding communities take the dogs on the weekends to have them experience things they can't behind bars. For instance, the sights and sounds inside a home, shopping or going to a park.

There are currently 10 inmates in the puppy program. Just as the dogs are in flux, with some graduating and leaving, the inmates are also transitional. Those that participate may eventually leave, so some inmates act as "backup" handlers, to manage the dogs.

After 15 months, the inmates give the dogs away to clients, many of whom they get to meet. Inmates get two weeks notice before that happens. The final goodbye can be emotional for them, program coordinators said.

Inmate Heather Stokes, the main handler for Jerri, said she cried when she had to leave Jerri. But two days later, she got another puppy to work with.

"It was hard, but I know Jerri is going to a classroom, and she's going to be good with those kids," Stokes said.

Stokes said she heard about the puppy program from another inmate and applied. At the time, she said she was "feeling lost" and wasn't sure if she was going to be able to "make it" through her term.

Being in the program for 10 months has changed her attitude toward dogs and life in general, she said.

"I liked dogs but thought they were cute from far away. Now I can't get enough of them," she said. "It's so different to know that the dog is always around to give a hug to, spend some time with."

Kerri Pape, an inmate who helped manage Jerri, said the program taught her to be responsible and not self-centered.

"For me, it's responsibility, and it's a way for me to do something good for somebody," Pape said. "It's a good program. It's not about us anymore, it's about the dog."

On Thursday morning, the dogs and the inmates handling them sat in a circle socializing with each other. Some pups napped, others played with chew toys.

Wylie, the trainer from NEADS, said often when women first start the program they are quiet and reserved. But then they "evolve with the dog."

"They become confident and comfortable," she said.

Although the coordinators said the program has a positive effect on the women, they stressed that the sole focus and program's mission statement is to provide service dogs.

"It's very satisfying to watch people that are so committed to an idea and so committed on a daily basis to give back," Bishop said. "I'm very proud of them."

NEADS originally started in 1976 as a program to train service dogs for the hearing-impaired and evolved into a program to train service dogs to help the physically disabled. The program also produces therapy dogs, walker balance dogs for veterans and ministry dogs for religious leaders.

The organization is accredited by the Assistance Dogs International.

Heather Stokes, right, an inmate at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, plays with Jerri, a two-year-old female black lab, Thursday in Thompson Hall at the Niantic facility. Stokes has been training the dog for 10 months as part of the National Education for Assistance Dogs program. Jerri's new owner, Lori Brown, a special ed teacher from Southern California, will use Jerri as a therapy dog with special needs children.
Heather Stokes, right, an inmate at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, plays with Jerri, a two-year-old female black lab, Thursday in Thompson Hall at the Niantic facility. Stokes has been training the dog for 10 months as part of the National Education for Assistance Dogs program. Jerri's new owner, Lori Brown, a special ed teacher from Southern California, will use Jerri as a therapy dog with special needs children. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo
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