There's a kind of joke among prisoners that they are all innocent. But at Mississippi's Delta Correctional Center, there really are three residents who have never committed any crimes. However, they don't mind spending a year behind bars. And when they get out, they really will improve their communities. That's because they're service dogs in training.
Roo is the leader of the group. The 18-month-old golden retriever knows more than 50 commands such as roll over, heel and back up. While his two inmate trainers are not allowed to be interviewed, they do give a demonstration of Roo's skills, all of which he performs perfectly.
Three-month-old brothers Ford and Falcolm, also retrievers, just arrived at the correctional center last month. Today, they're supposed to be working on the sit and stay commands, but would rather inspect the reporter's microphone.
The inmates call the puppy program the Dog Pound, but Bertha Grimes, special activities coordinator at the prison, says it's really part of the national Canine Companions for Independence Program. The non-profit "CCI" organization has been training and placing service dogs for more than 30 years, primarily through the help of volunteer groups like the one at Delta Correctional Center.
Grimes began this program in 2004 after hearing about its success at another prison, and she says the inmates appreciate it. "A lot of inmates that I talk to say it's just giving them something to give back to the community, plus it gives them time to just sit back and do something, 'cause they have all this time on their hands, so time will go by for them."
But raising a puppy inside a prison isn't just about passing time, it's serious business. Inmates at this medium security facility are thoroughly screened before being put on the waiting list for a puppy. They know that being chosen to participate is a privilege and an honor. The slightest violation of prison rules and the puppy will be taken away.
The program also teaches inmates to work in teams, because they must get along with their assigned partner in order to have a puppy.
Roo, Ford and Falcolm live in the pod, or open cell, where approximately 50 men live together, dorm style. Grimes says their trainers must study a detailed manual and keep them on a strict schedule. "About 6 or 7 o'clock [in the morning] they feed them. Once they feed them, take them back out, they do a little exercise with them, you know, just a little circle group, playing, exercise. About 10:15 they train with them." And the routine goes on, throughout the day.
While Roo, Ford and Falcolm learn the basic commands to become service dogs, Grimes says all the men in the pod learn from the puppies. "Just dealing with people in general, the overall attitude just changes, when they're dealing with puppies," she explains. "There are some [inmates] that are not being cared about, they're locked up true enough, but they're humans, you know everybody needs to be loved."
Ford and Falcolm still have about 11 months of training ahead of them. But Roo will be leaving his inmate trainers soon to join the advanced program at CCI's southeast headquarters in Orlando, Florida.
Kathy Kilpatrick, CCI's regional puppy program manager says she's had terrific results with the 15 or so dogs Delta Correctional inmates have raised. "The dogs that we get from the prison programs and from Delta are very much prepared for advanced training, their skill level is exceptional. The staff has to be a big part of it as far as seeing to the welfare of the puppies, making sure the inmates have what they need to be successful, but the inmates become very protective and watch out for those dogs very carefully."
During advanced training, Roo and his classmates will learn such skills as turning on and off light switches, retrieving fallen objects and pulling a wheel chair. Kilpatrick says these dogs do more than provide valuable physical services for people with disabilities. They provide a social boost, as well.
"We have a tendency to ignore people with disabilities," she explains. "But a person out in public with a great-looking dog that's working for them, that dog can become a bridge to the able-bodied community, because people now have something to talk to them about. 'What does your dog do?' 'Wow that's a great looking dog,' et cetera."
When they are about two years old, Roo, Ford, Falcolm and their fellow CCI graduates will be placed with those they have been trained to serve. The waiting list for service dogs is long, and the dogs are given at no cost to eligible new owners, who must also go through a training course. Kilpatrick says the dogs work about eight years before retiring to become regular house pets. "I can think of no better way to give back to our communities than to raise a puppy for a person with a disability who could not raise that dog for themselves," she says, calling it a win-win-win situation.