Prison Dog Program Makes Huge Impact On Inmates Lives & Shelter Dogs
MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — For years, Baldwin County Department of Animal Control struggled with a vexing problem: What to do with the dogs that had already been taken in, but had not been relocated to new forever homes?
Although workers and volunteers had worked tirelessly to adopt hundreds of dogs in their care over the years, the shelter was faced with the same problem as so many other shelters across the country — too many dogs, and not enough people willing to take them in. A partnership between the Department and the Riverbend Correctional Facility is giving dogs that would otherwise be slated for euthanasia an unlikely home — a cell block inside a medium security prison.
“The program came about during a training meeting with two of my AWs [assistant wardens], Patrick Gartland and Angela Reaves, where they were tasked with coming up with some type of bonding program,” said Riverbend Warden Fredrick Head. “There were some other GEO [the private company that administers Riverbend] facilities in the country that had what we call canine rescue programs, and when they found out that the shelter stays full and a lot of the animals were being euthanized, they wanted to try and do something.”
Since July 2015, inmates who have been specially vetted by prison staff (applicants must write a formal essay on why they would make a good choice to handle a dog, and no sex offenders or prisoners deemed not in good standing are allowed) have been assigned the task of training dogs to make them more desirable to potential owners, and the arrangement has benefitted animals and prisoners alike. At any given time, roughly 10 dogs are assigned two trainers apiece to live together inside a cell, where inmates care for the animals day and night. Between teaching the dogs verbal commands, seeing to their food and veterinary care, and giving the dogs a place to sleep inside their cells, the animals and their handlers have forged an unlikely bond.
“I get the Wall Street Journal, and she loves to read it and see what’s going on in there while I’m reading. Anything I’m doing she wants to nose her way into,” said Brian Duckett, one of the program’s longest-tenured handlers. “I’ve been a dog trainer while I’ve been doing my college work the last two years, and I just finished my undergraduate degree in December … To be honest with you, the dog kind of helped me do that, because she relieved my anxieties and the difficulties of the prison environment. You can cope in prison, but there can be bad days, too, and Precious was always there for me.”
Through two years of pairing unwanted dogs with inmates at Riverbend, there to see it all has been Deb Campbell. In spring 2015, Campbell was volunteering at the shelter one day when Gartland and Reaves came in wanting to know if the shelter would be interested in a “canine rescue” program. After having spent weeks praying for a solution that did not involve dogs being euthanized, the two wardens were a manifestation of her prayers being answered.
Today Riverbend’s inmates estimate that Campbell spends an average of 30 hours or more at the prison per week, while her efforts have so far led to 20 dogs finding new homes on the outside. Earlier this week, handlers presented Warden Head with a small wooden figurine as a token of thanks for enacting the program. Prisoners, guards, and wardens unanimously attest to the program’s effectiveness, both in giving the prisoners a sense of responsibility and in showing them (and the dogs) some much-needed love in an otherwise bleak existence.
“When the warden first told us about getting the dogs, nobody in our dorm wanted one,” said Roland Hight of the day he first got his dog, Buddy. “Everybody in our dorm has a life sentence, so when [they] brought Buddy to us, when they brought him down the hallway, everybody fell in love with him. Buddy’s changed a lot of peoples’ lives in our dormitory — he’s brought a lot of love and a lot of joy to everybody in there.”
To donate to the Riverbend Jail Dogs program, local residents can make a deposit in the “Canines and Corrections” account at Exchange Bank. To adopt a jail dog and see photos of the dogs and their handlers, go to www.facebook.com/RiverbendJailDogs.