Tails are wagging at the Little RockDepartment of Corrections.
The facility participates in Paws in Prison, a publicly-funded program that matches inmates with abandoned dogs that are at risk for being euthanized. Selected inmates live and work with the dogs, with two of them teaching them basic obedience skills and properly socializing the animals for the purpose of making them more adoptable. A professional dog trainer visits weekly to teach the inmates how to train the dogs.
Last year in Arkansas, hundreds of homeless dogs were euthanized.
“These strays and unwanted dogs would be euthanized after so long. They were on death row, to us, because they were fixing to be put down,” said Marcia Coburn, an inmate at Hawkins Center for Women in Wrightsville. “They came here, and we give them training so they have another chance.”
Coburn has noticed that inmates are friendlier to each other and stop to pet the dogs, and that the environment in the barracks is more positive.
“This program has been incredible in how much it has changed the atmosphere of our institution. It’s been good for the officers and staff, as well as a positive program for the inmates to do something positive and pay back their debt for the crimes they have committed,” said Shea Wilson, communications administrator for the department of corrections. “It helps support the inmates’ success for re-entry and provides an additional skill set that might help them find employment. They might end up working in the dog grooming or training field. It’s a good thing all the way around.”
Belynda Goff, who has been an inmate for 16 years, agreed.
“This program is so wonderful in that after time here you go on autopilot and do the same thing every day. You’re not even conscious any more. One thing it did to me is took me off autopilot.”
Paws in Prison is made possible through an Arkansas Department of Correction partnership with the Central Arkansas Rescue Effort for Animals and other animal shelters and advocate groups in the state. The program started in four prison units in December 2011, and a fifth was added in February.
Currently, it’s in place at the Randall Williams Correctional Facility in Pine Bluff, North Central Unit, the Maximum Security Unit at Tucker, the Ouachita River Correctional Unit in Malvern and the A.J. Hawkins Center for Women at Wrightsville.
Officers and guards are pleased with the program’s results as well.
“It creates a better working environment for a lot of people. It’s a lot calmer and there are not as many complaints,” said Corporal Officer Kyle Johnson. “I think it helps things in the long run.”
In states where similar programs operate there has been a profound impact on inmates and staff, improving institutional security and the quality of life. ADC modeled its program after a similar one in the Missouri prison system, which recently adopted out its 500th dog.
“I work with this program every day. I’ve seen how it has changed our inmates and impacted the environments of our institutions,” says Wilson. “It makes my heart swell. I love it and can’t imagine us not doing it. It has made that kind of impact on all of us.”
By CARRIE SCHMITT