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East Lyme - When Randi, an inmate at the York Correctional Institution, was selected in April to participate in The Red Dog Project, a program that gets rescue dogs ready for adoption, she wondered, "Am I emotionally ready? It's a big responsibility."
Randi, who is serving 2½ years for criminal violation of a restraining order, is a recovering drug addict and says she has been in abusive relationships most of her life. Because she had her own problems to deal with, she wondered if she could she help a dog that had its own issues.
Randi soon discovered she could, and she learned more about herself in the process.
"I learned how to be more responsible," said Randi, whose last name was withheld per Department of Correction policy. "I learned to be accountable to something. Just like me, all they need is a little TLC."
The Red Dog Project was introduced to the prison on Oct. 31 and has since helped 40 dogs find new homes.
Lorin Liesenfelt, founder of the Dog Days rescue group, runs the organization's Red Dog Project. Dogs are pulled from shelters from within Connecticut as well as Georgia, which has shelters with high euthanasia rates. She teaches the inmates to handle the dogs and get them ready for adoption.
"These dogs were literally hours from being euthanized," said Liesenfelt. "The women here are so patient and understanding. They want the dogs to succeed."
The inmates' rooms are equipped with baby gates and dog crates for their companions. Each week, the dog gets a new handler. The purpose for doing that is twofold - it socializes the dog to different people and the inmates don't get too attached. The average stay for a dog is four to six weeks. The dogs are put up for adoption at an event held once a month at the Tractor Supply Co. store in Old Saybrook.
Liesenfelt said some of the dogs have been abused or neglected or never given the love they deserve - something that the inmates can relate to.
"We're saving each other," said Tiffany, who is serving 4½ years for burglary. "It's therapeutic for us. It's rewarding to know we're saving a life."
Tiffany is working with Prince, a 1-year-old golden retriever mix.
York had previously hosted the National Education for Assistance Dog Services training program, and Warden Stephen Faucher was eager to bring a dog program back. "The offenders feel good about themselves because they're part of a program that's successful," he said. "They want something to nurture. This gives them the opportunity to give back."
Correction Officer Michael DiLoreto, who is a Red Dog facility coordinator, said the program can have up to 10 inmate handlers. Low-security level inmates must be free of any discipline tickets to be considered for the program.
Liesenfelt visits the prison at least twice a week to check on the dogs' progress. As she entered the corridor of Thompson Hall, the dogs could sense her. They began to wag their tails vigorously.
Liesenfelt checked in with Correction Officer Eric Morin to see if there have been any issues with the dogs. He reported good news: Koko, a 1-year-old shepherd mix, is being more social and doesn't appear as skittish.
The group then walked downstairs to the solarium, where inmates sat in a semi-circle. Liesenfelt taught the women how to properly walk the dogs on a leash. She told one inmate to walk faster as she noticed the dog looking around and getting bored. She told her to use the command "Leave it" when she noticed the dog beginning to stray.
Tiffany and Prince are working on walking together. Prince tends to flop on the ground when he doesn't want to walk anymore.
Liesenfelt encouraged Tiffany to hold the leash close to her body and gently tug him until he gets the cue that it's time to get up. When Prince started to walk, she told Tiffany to pick up the pace and make the stroll more enjoyable for him. Tiffany gives him treats after a successful walk.
Red Dog isn't the only animal program within the Department of Correction. 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.
Correction Officer Steve Curran, dog program coordinator for the department, said one of the men's prisons, the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, also has a greyhound socialization and adoption program.
Curran said DOC Commissioner James Dzurenda and his wife have rescued dogs and are big supporters of the program. He said the Red Dog Project does not cost the state any money, as all the expenses are paid for by the organization.
The Red Dog Project was named after a rescue pit bull mix in Bridgeport who had parvovirus, mange and other illnesses. The dog lost all of its fur, exposing its red skin. And from then on, any dog that needed a little more care has been deemed a "Red Dog," Liesenfelt said.
Jennifer Potts, a York secretary who knew Liesenfelt through her rescue work, put Liesenfelt in touch with Curran. Both Curran and Liesenfelt said the collaboration has been a success.
"I never thought I'd say that I'm excited to go to prison," said Liesenfelt. "It's amazing to see both the dogs and women come out of their shells."
DiLoreto said the offenders can participate in the program until they're released from prison. He said he has seen positive changes in the women's behavior.
"They see value and beauty in every dog," he said, "and hopefully they see it within themselves as well."
Donations may be mailed to Dog Days, 48 Main St., Old Saybrook, CT 06475, or through the organization's website, www.godogdays.org. The group is also seeking donations of marrow bones, Nylabones, bully sticks, small fleece blankets, sturdy toys, Kong toys and grain-free treats.