Animals and Inmates: Symbiosis and Redemption

How a prison animal training program is successfully curbing criminal behavior.

Donald E. and two of the dogs he's worked with. Contributed photo.

Stealing a car landed Donald S. in a Washington state prison in the early 1970s. Then he killed a fellow inmate in 1975, and another in 1977, and was sentenced to death.  When appeals reduced his sentence to life without parole, he resumed making trouble in prison. So he spent much of the next decades in Stafford Creek Corrections Center’s Intensive Management Unit, comparable to solitary confinement, according to Heather Williams, public information officer at Larch Corrections Center. “I didn’t like authority. They wanted to break me, but there was nothing they could do to stop me. I did whatever I wanted to do,” Donald S. says recently, on the phone from Stafford Creek. “Then the warden told me I could be in the dog program if I was good for a year. I don’t like people, but I like the critters.”

In the Freedom Tails program, inmates train wayward shelter dogs to make them more adoptable, says Dennis Cherry, custody unit supervisor at Stafford Creek. But to get into the program and stay in the program, Donald’s behavior would have to be impeccable. “He was in constant trouble. Now he’s had nothing but good behavior for five years,” says Cherry. “Once he was suspended for six months when he went outside when he wasn’t supposed to. He kept asking if he could come back early. He likes smaller dogs. He’s lovey dovey with them. He likes to hold them.”

“I get hassled for showing love,” says Donald, now 66. “Most of the dogs are abused and really need love. I let ‘em on my bed, let ‘em loose in the day room. They’re loyal. They don’t rat on you.”

He has trained about 14 dogs, but his favorite was Flash, a 13-inch high, 75-pound basset hound with hefty legs. “He bellows and goes for the knees of other dogs,” says Donald. “I wasn’t supposed to let him sleep with me, but I did. He lay with his back against the wall and tried to push me out of bed with his feet.”

The first prison animal programs in the U.S. began in Washington state prisons in 1981, introduced by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun. A relationship with a German shepherd had freed her from a life of mental illness, homelessness, and isolation, according to a Seattle Times interview with her. She was leery of people and avoided them, but found that when her interactions with them focused on her dog, she was more comfortable. She also found that she could train dogs to help the disabled.

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