Paws4people Teaches Prisoners To Find Compassion and Tolerance
St. Mary's Correctional Center is one of five state prisons in West Virginia where inmates help train service dogs. The program is a partnership between the paws4people foundation and the West Virginia Division of Corrections.
The prison yard is surrounded by razor wire fencing. About a hundred men are outside wearing khaki jumpsuits and orange jackets. In many ways, it could be any other medium security prison- except that there are about 15 golden retrievers being led around on leashes in the sunlight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoMJprKqmZw&feature=youtu.be
Stephfon is one of 32 inmates at St. Mary's who was selected to be part of the paws4people program. For nearly a year, he's been working to train an English Cream Golden Retriever named Leo.
"Since I've had Leo, he's taught me a lot of things about myself. Such as, myself having anger problems, and tolerance problems. Because when you're dealing with dogs, you have to have tolerance and be able to control your anger. And either you're gonna get it together, or you're just not gonna have them anymore," said Stephfon.
The paws4people program started in 2007 at the Hazelton Federal Prison in Preston County, and a couple of years ago it moved to the state prisons.
During their training, the dogs learn a hundred commands that they will be able to use to serve a disabled client. But after months of training, dogs are introduced to their prospective new clients, at an event called the "Bump”. For the inmates, this means their dog is about to leave the prison to go finish their service dog training and live with their new client.
"There's a lot of tears. The toughest guy in here cries whenever his dog leaves," said Amanda Anderson, the program manager at the St. Mary's Correctional Center. Andreson helps manage the paws4people unit.
"I can't imagine what they go through. I struggle sometimes because you do get attached. And with them, they're putting everything they have into that dog."
Cece Miller is the deputy operations officer for the Paws 4 People Foundation. She says the inmate trainers go through a kind of emotional transformation as they realize the impact of their work. "And this program has given them something that no other program has given them. And that's a piece of themselves back that they lost."
The bump is a two-day event that takes place inside the prison's gymnasium. In front of a crowd of people, the dogs are introduced to the new clients one at a time.
"I was apprehensive about how a dog chooses his client, until I went and saw one. It's a very emotional time," said Patrick Mirandy, the Warden at St. Mary's Correctional Center. "And you'll see a dog who may not pay any attention to a client when he walks up to him. But then you'll see another dog walk through that just wants all the attention from that individual. The one person it has this aura effect on or whatever."
Often, the dog will bump up against someone and nestle against their body when they feel a strong bond with a person.
"The bump reminds me of to an extent that the client...the dog senses things about them to the nature of whether they want to be there or not. Not so much as they're angry but what they're going through, that they sense that. And if they can't deal with it, they don't want nothing to do with them. And that's beautiful," said Stephfon.
I asked Stephfon, what will it be like for him, when Leo chooses his client and they have to part ways.
"What's gonna help me get over that is knowing that he's going somewhere that he's needed. He's not needed here. I might say I need him, but there's another one coming behind him. He's going where he's needed, where he can do some good for somebody, where he can make somebody else's life better. And he will. He'll make somebody else's life better."
The second day of the bump, Leo the dog did find his match. Leo will be working as a medical alert service dog for a civilian client who has post-traumatic stress disorder. Meanwhile, Stephfon has a new puppy that he's training, named Nolen.
Note: Since that story was first reported last year, Stephfon is still a trainer with the paws4prisons program at St. Mary’s Correctional Center. He is also now an Academic Instructor for the paws4prisons and assists in teaching other trainers in the program.
He was denied parole in August 2015, and will see the parole board again in August 2016. The two service dogs he trained, Nolen and Leo, are both now living with their clients and are reported to be doing great at their jobs.