I had never set foot in a prison before. As I stepped into Jefferson City Correctional Center, accompanied by ReCHAI’s powerhouse Dr Rebecca Johnson, to visit their animal-assisted prison program, I was understandably nervous. As with all genius ideas, Puppies for Parole is beautifully simple: team up offenders with rescue dogs and allow them to rehabilitate each other. Offenders take on 24/7 responsibility for a rescue dog, training them in basic obedience skills and socialising them to a point where they are ready to be adopted out into the community. I was lucky enough to be there when a Puppies for Parole graduation ceremony was taking place. With families coming to pick up their newly adopted dogs, offenders presenting their pups and Missouri Department of Corrections’ staff talking about the programme, it was the perfect opportunity for me to see how it works. I expected to be moved. I did not expect to spend the following days, weeks and even months questioning all that I thought I knew about human behaviour, welfare and justice. In the months that have followed my visit, I have repeatedly tried and failed to write up what I saw, felt and thought. As with so many animal-assisted intervention programs, it really has to be witnessed to be fully understood. Those of us who work with animals know the power they have to take us to a deeper part of our selves. There is a place that exists in each of us that cannot necessarily be reached with words. Animals lead us there and open up a more instinctive mode of communication, one that we all have but sadly have perhaps learnt to ignore or forget.
At J-Triple-C (as it’s referred to by Dr Johnson and her team), I witnessed the effects that a furry four-legged team has had on an entire prison ward and its surrounding community. I listened to one man speak passionately and eloquently of his experience as an offender enrolled on the program. He remembered his own past, moving from foster home to foster home, feeling disenchanted, frustrated and abandoned. He noted the connection with these dogs, also abandoned, and spoke with pride of his role in enabling them to find stable and loving homes. He spoke of taking responsibility for a life and the rewards that come when you put the needs of another being before yourself. He shared with us the lessons he has learnt about compromise, respect and the virtues of commitment and patience. I felt such privilege at hearing this man’s story and was reminded of the huge importance of seeing the person behind the label. For these men do carry with them a label. Some of them will never be out in a community again. They will never feel the grass under their feet with hours stretched in front of them with nothing to do and nowhere in particular to go, with freedom of choice and movement. Is this fair? I don’t know.
I do know that the presence of the dogs allowed us to have these conversations, to ask these questions whilst remaining grounded in reality. They softened the space, a space which is harsh and intimidating and yet holds and influences the lives of some 2000 men. With wagging tails and endless energy, the dogs bring laughter and comfort into a hostile environment. They invite us to focus on the here and now, to leave ego and judgment behind. For the dogs, the staff, offenders, researchers and trainers are one and the same – awkward two-legged beings with interesting smells and looming faces. For us humans, the dogs are pure joy, allowing us to come into our senses and engage with one another, animal to animal.
‘For the vast majority of offenders it brings a sense of caring about something other than ourselves. We have witnessed the smiles on the faces of some of the most hardened men as they watch the dogs play or even approach one of them for a rub on the head or belly. Seeing one of the crabbiest old men in here, sit on the yard and just grin as he pets one of the dogs, shows how sometimes it’s the simplest things that tame a beast.’
– James Gee, JCCC Offender and Puppies for Parole Handler
My Churchill Fellowship took me to six states in the USA in April and May this year. In December I will be visiting Israel for Part 2 of my continuing research into best practice in animal-assisted intervention projects. I will be publishing a report with my findings later this year.
Post by Ione Maria Rojas