A partnership between a local animal shelter and prison is saving the lives of dogs and rehabilitating the lives of inmates. In May 2012, the Alger Correctional Facility began training dogs from the Eva Burrell Animal Shelter in Manistique.
The program was the first of its kind in the Upper Peninsula, and in this teaching program, the learning goes both ways, according to prison unit counselor, Greg Schram.
"It's an amazing transformation," said Schram. "I would have never guessed it would have worked like this. We've got lifers, maybe been in here for 25 years, haven't seen an animal in 25 years."
Shelter director Patti Newby said the partnership is a perfect match.
"What we needed was time, and what these guys have that no one else seems to be able to afford us is time," said Newby. "And they can make such a difference."
Inmates at the prison spend their entire days with the young dogs. About 30 dogs have been involved in this program, which for many, was their last chance.
"They learn 30 commands, and they're housebroke," Newby said. "They become a valuable part of the family. They're not just a dog, they're a family member. And that's what these guys teach them."
The dogs and prisoners follow a strict training schedule and receive guidance about once a month from shelter staff, like Newby. About 40 prisoners have been trained to handle dogs so far. Prisoners have to apply for the job, and those with a history of sexual offense, child endangerment or animal cruelty are not considered. For the prisoners, their lives are changing, too.
In a letter to the prison warden, one inmate wrote, "Until now, I never before knew what 'pride' felt like." Another said, "It's good for us to see that someone or something needs us."
Schram said the prisoners showed an immediate interest in the program when it started.
"They were on board, trying to get into the program, and the guys who did get into the program, in fact, one just got paroled," he said.
Corrections officer Patti Hubble has seen the difference the program has made in the inmates.
"It gives them a lot of purpose, gives them an outlook," said Hubble. "They feel like they have responsibility now. It gives them something to look up to, look forward to in the morning."
"The guys were able to impact the dogs in ways that we can't, and they've literally helped save their lives," Newby added.
Newby firmly believes that prisons are a great place for dogs to be trained.
"I think there's people on both sides of the fence, and they're welcome to their opinion, and they're welcome to be wrong, because I'm here to advocate for the animals," she said. "That's our job, and it always makes a difference for the animal. That's what we're here for."
Schram said a program like this is a very unique opportunity for prisoners.
"We don't reward positive behavior very often, and these guys worked their way into this program," he said.
After the dogs graduate from the training program, they are adopted by local families. Shelter and prison staff said they have received many 'thank yous' from the dogs' new families because their animals are trained so well.
The first prison dog training program in Michigan was started at a level two facility in Lakeland. Level two and four inmates work with dogs in Munising. Recently, similar programs have been started at prisons in Marenisco and Kinross.