The New Leash on Life, which pairs inmates with dogs rescued from area animal shelters, graduated its first two members this week. (See the story elsewhere in today's paper.)
The dogs, Sheba and Skippy, were scared and distrusting when they first came to the White Lake facility. Though the loving attention of four inmates-Stephen Brown, Walter Franklin, Joseph Oldham and Nolan Pack-the two dogs were transformed into well-behaved family pets.
The handlers readily admit to having made some bad mistakes in their lives-Nolan bluntly told the crowd attending the graduation that he has been incarcerated for ten years-but to participate in the program, each man has to have a good record while in prison. They have to be willing to change for the better, and show themselves worthy of an important trust.
Sheba was abused and malnourished when she first went into a no-kill shelter in a neighboring county. Even on his first day with his trainers, Skippy wanted to make friends, although he had the look and attitude of a dog who has been hurt too many times.
On Tuesday, eight weeks after their arrival, the dogs were affectionate, playful, and happy.
It's amazing the effect that just two months of intensive, positive attention can have on an animal. The trainers, too, showed a renewed sense of self-worth, and a pride in a job well done. Prison officials also report fewer disciplinary problems, since tension levels are reduced in a prison where dogs are as much a benefit to the handlers as to themselves.
Sgt. Tracey Campbell, who trains dogs for the Fayetteville Police Department, said he would be willing to stand as a reference for any of the trainers when they get out of prison. Anytime a police officer is willing to speak up for a convicted criminal, it's a sign something fundamental has changed in the inmate's life. Campbell, who volunteered his time to teach the new handlers how to train dogs, had nothing but good things to say about the program's participants.
Prison officials should also be praised for the fact that no tax dollars were used locally for this program. All the food, shelter, health care, and equipment were donated by citizens and businesses in the community.
While we're heartily in favor of any program that can help an unwanted animal, rehabilitate a prison inmate, do it with donations-and be successful-this is one program the state might need to examine carefully when budget time rolls around, or when new statewide programs are being implemented.
Expanding this program is a worthy goal for the Department of Corrections. We should be proud that a facility no one wishes was needed is not only able to provide a benefit to the community, but is an example other DOC facilities can follow.
Either rehabilitating unwanted animals into family pets, or prison inmates into productive members of society, is a worthy goal for any institution. To combine the two, and be successful, is cause for pride.