Prison Inmates ‘Paws for Life’ Saves Furry Friends
By Dianne Anderson
Some things can make a grown man cry, like a best friend in need.
Dogs — man’s best friend — are getting their second chance with the help of inmates training some fine furry friends as if their lives depend on it. In many ways, it does.
Through a variety of prison training programs statewide, the dogs escape death by getting paired up with inmates, where both often share common bonds of abuse and neglect.
Krissi Khokhobashvili, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that just like the inmates, a lot of the dogs have never been shown affection.
“Some of these dogs have been abandoned, some of these guys have been abandoned and judged because of who they were or their background,” she said.
The emphasis is on giving a dog a chance to be accepted into a good caring home, but trainers are also getting tamed through the process.
A few years ago, Karma Rescue started programming at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, in Lancaster as a volunteer-run program. Before long, Paws for Life caught on and programming expanded to several prisons across the state in partnership with community organizations and local animal shelters.
Dogs with a low risk of adoption and a high chance of being put to death are trained to be loveable and obedient. Like a lot of the inmates that now train them, the dogs are older, and their social behavior is unacceptable, making it hard to get them adopted out.
Their partnership with the state prison program started under the guidance of Los Angeles County Captain Crystal Wood, herself a devoted animal rescuer. A facility was set up to connect the dogs with high-security inmates that had proven their commitment to the paws.
Inmates willing to do the work as a team, to cut across the prison politics, gang politics and racial tensions, were selected to lead the pack.
For the most part, she said the men are serving life sentences for very violent crimes.
“Some might be serving life without the possibility of parole, some may be serving 100 or 200-year sentences on multiple life sentences.”
Paws for Life brought professional trainers in with each dog assigned to two inmate handlers. Before the 12 weeks are over, both dog and trainers have learned a lot about kenneling, and socialization skills.
Trainers are responsible to teach the dogs when to eat, what to eat and keep schedules. Dogs learn to get along with a crowd of strangers and other inmates. Once ready, dogs and handlers have to pass a series of stringent K9 good citizen tests to meet the American Kennel Club standard.
Any stubborn behavioral issues are trained out. The men can relate to what the dogs go through as the dogs head back to the shelter ready to be adopted. The inmates say their tearful goodbyes.
In recent years, the program has expanded through an innovative grant. Currently, about half of the state’s prisons are implementing similar dog service or training programs that work with local shelters.
Other host programs with dogs not from the shelters, such as K-9 companions for independence have inmates training them from little puppies. Those dogs go on to become service animals for those with disabilities, such as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dogs are also women’s best friend. At the California Institution for Women in Corona, Khokhobashvili said the dog training program has 10 years success. There, female inmates train service dogs for children with disabilities.
Incarceration facilities are welcome to contact with the state for more information about how to implement local programming, although the training, setup and operating procedures take time and funding. There must be sufficient space to safely house and secure the animals.
This year, she is also optimistic about Prop. 57, passed last year by voters, that allows inmates in these dog programs to earn “rehabilitative achievement credit,” a time-off credit for participating in the program.
Even so, many inmates are high-level offenders, and they know they will never get time off. For them, it is all the more an emotional experience.
Often, they say it’s the first time they’ve been able to contribute to society, or the first time they’ve cared for anything.
“They are not just crying because they might be able to get some time off for good behavior,” she said.
She said the program changes minds and changing lives.
“Every single person I’ve talked to said that, ‘I’ve spent a lifetime taking away from people, now I’m giving something to someone,'” she said.