Jennifer Hemmingsen 2014-01-15 04:13:04
After inmates raise them, the puppies’ good behavior will lead to a new life on the outside as Leader Dogs. The blind are not the only ones given a new lease on life. On a dreary day in Iowa, the cluster of squat cement buildings that make up the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility seem to fade into the steel-gray sky. Icy sleet falls on the buildings and covers the bare cornfields surrounding the electrified fence. The Fort Dodge facility is one of Iowa’s largest prisons, housing more than 1,000 men serving sentences for serious crimes. They’ve been sent here for taking what they had no right to take: property, a sense of community security, a human life. In here, their lives are reduced to bare essentials and subject to strict routine. In a long, pale corridor, corrections officer Brenda Birchard breezes past inmates dressed in regulation jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts. With the easy familiarity of a woman who knows where she’s going, she passes a set of plate-glass doors and enters the prison’s sparsely furnished library, where more than a dozen inmates sit on straightbacked chairs. Under each chair, calm, alert and quite possibly the last thing you’d expect to see here: puppies. Lions Clubs International’s dedication to sight programs and services is world renowned. For generations, Leader Dogs for the Blind programs have given the gift of independence to those who are blind, visually impaired or deaf and blind. But less well-known is the decade-long partnership between the Leader Dog program and Iowa Prisons. Since 2002, select inmates in a few Iowa prisons have raised Leader Dog puppies for Leader Dogs’ certified trainers in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Inmates have cared for hundreds of pups, teaching them basic commands and preparing them for specialized training and the life of a service dog. The Fort Dodge Correctional Facility has been a part of Leader Dogs since late 2010, giving inmates an opportunity to give back by helping others. “Their crime doesn’t mean diddly to me,” says Birchard, Leader Dogs coordinator for the prison. “The name of this place is Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, not Fort Dodge Discipline Facility.” Raising Leader Dog puppies helps inmates practice skills–like responsibility, patience and putting others’ interests before their own– that will help them be positive members of society when they’re released. A Litter of Six The first partnership between Leader Dogs and Iowa Prisons was at the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City when staff member Randy Kirkbride, a Lion, approached then-warden Jim McKinney with the idea. Leon, an elderly inmate who so far has served nearly 50 years of his life sentence for murder, was one of the first inmates to participate. “I said it would be good, under the circumstances, to pay back a little–not nearly enough–but to do something good for somebody else,” says Leon, who asked we not print his last name. The prison started out with a litter of six. Inmates cared for and socialized the puppies, teaching them 16 basic commands–such as sit, down, come, stay–preparing them for more extensive training from Leader Dogs School’s certified trainers. The partnership was such a success that it since has branched out to Iowa prison facilities in Newton and Fort Dodge. Hundreds of puppies have received their initial training–supporters liken it to puppy kindergarten–behind Iowa prison walls. The Fort Dodge program started in 2010, with five older puppies that “outside” handlers had found difficult to train, says Birchard. In many ways prison life is ideal for puppy training. Inmate handlers at Fort Dodge have plenty of time to devote to their dogs, who accompany them nearly everywhere. If an inmate does have an appointment or work duty where dogs aren’t allowed, there are plenty of “puppy sitters” to offer some relief. “They work and work with those dogs,” says District 9-NC Leader Dog Chairwoman Lois Jones of the Iowa Falls Lions Club. In fact, puppies raised in Iowa prisons are more likely than other puppies to graduate and become Leader Dogs, she says. Today the Fort Dodge facility has 73 dogs in training and one cat, Max. (“He thinks he’s a dog,” inmate handlers say.) Max helps acclimate the dogs to other pets. The puppies arrive when they’re 5 to 8 weeks old, and they stay for about a year. The program is strict. Handlers must have clean disciplinary records and go through a series of puppy classes before they can be assigned a puppy. It’s also self-sufficient: all the puppies’ blankets, scarves and leashes are made in the prison. Sponsorships and donations pay for puppy food, vet visits and other supplies. “It’s tons more work and responsibility than having a dog outside,” says Thomas Mann, 32, serving a 50-year sentence for his part in the murder of a high school-aged drug informant. “It’s not a pet. It’s basically like having a kid.” When they’re working, the puppies each wear powder blue bandanas that say Future Leader Dog. The bandanas are meant to represent a blind handler’s harness. Only when the bandanas come off is it OK to play. Even then, there are rules: games of fetch and tug of war are forbidden. Puppies have to sleep in their own beds. “There are a lot of ‘do’s and don’ts,’” says 33-year-old handler Tony Vang. “There’s no way of cheating it if you want your dog to succeed.” Life Lessons Vang, who expects to serve 14 more years for a first-degree robbery conviction, says he wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to be a Leader Dogs handler. He didn’t know if he’d be able to care for a dog without breaking one of the big rules about prison–you have to project a tough persona in order to survive. It’s hard to be gruff with an adorable little puppy as your constant companion, an animal that trusts and accepts you for who you are. As one inmate says, “A dog doesn’t care who I am or what I’ve done.” The inmates develop close attachments to their puppies, which lasts even after the dogs have grown. When the inmates talk about their puppies, it’s as if they’re describing a close friend or member of their family. “When the dog goes, they break down and cry,” Jones says. Handlers write monthly updates to their puppy’s sponsors. Jones, whose family has sponsored several puppies, read from one whose author was preparing for his puppy to leave: “I love her a lot,” he wrote. “But I know she’s going on to bigger and better things.” Inmate Brent Stitzer, 28, says that it feels really good to give back and to know his work eventually will help someone else live a freer and more independent life. Being a puppy handler has taught him the value of putting someone else’s interests before his own, he adds. He hopes to continue as a trainer when he’s released soon after serving four years for vehicular homicide. “I’ve just enjoyed doing it,” says Stitzer. “I think it will help keep me out of trouble when I’m out of here.” “It’s taught me patience,” says James “Big Swede” Merical, 40. “A little foresight before I make rash decisions.” That’s something that didn’t come so easy for Merical, who is serving a 50-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping. He is massive and muscular, with a bald head and bushy brown beard. He cuts an imposing figure, sitting with legs planted firmly on the outsides of his chair. “Without the animal, I didn’t have to deal with anything I didn’t want to,” he says. As a handler, that’s all changed. “People want to interact with your dog, so you have to be more social,” says Merical. Helping Hands As much as they are able to do, the puppy programs at Iowa prisons rely on help from outsiders, too. The inmate handlers at Fort Dodge Correctional are quick to list the people who are central to its success: sponsors, donors, trainers in Michigan, other volunteers. “I think we all realize we’re just a small part of the big picture,” Birchard says. Past District Governor Randy and Past Council Chairperson Carol Kirkbride of Ankeny log thousands of miles each year, driving dogs to the vet, giving them a taste of life outside of prison. They deliver young pups to the prison for training and load them into their own vehicles to make the 700-mile journey to Rochester Hills for training and partnering with a blind handler. Jones travels throughout her district, giving about two presentations about the program per month and soliciting sponsorships and donations. Among the volunteers is a special group of fourth grade students at Rock Run Elementary School in Iowa Falls. The students help puppies gain important experiences they can’t get “inside” such as children, traffic, crowds and public places. Their teacher, Jones’ daughter-in-law, Susan Jones, got her class involved as part of the character curriculum back in 2003. That first class hoped simply to raise enough to sponsor a single Leader Dog. Since then, they’ve sponsored nearly three dozen dogs and learned important lessons about community spirit along the way. It might seem at first like an odd alliance–schoolchildren, Lions clubs, prison inmates–all working together to help make life better for the visually impaired. But the disparate elements achieve a harmony of purpose. “It all ties together,” Lois Jones says. “It works.” Or as Tony Vang put it from the other side of the prison wall: “You can tell the worth of a program by how far it reaches.”
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