A Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) program in which inmates rehabilitate and train dogs taken in by animal shelters and rescue organizations could soon be emulated in England.

Called Puppies for Parole (P4P), the MDOC started the program in March 2010. Since then, close to 2,400 dogs have “graduated” from P4P programs at all but a couple of Missouri’s 20 prisons after spending six to eight weeks living and working with inmates who have qualified as “offender handlers.” The South Central Correctional Center (SCCC) in Licking was one of two facilities in the state where the program was first tried (along with the Jefferson City Correctional Center), and in partnership with The Animal Shelter of Texas County (TASTC) and its Healing Paws program, the facility has produced close to 300 P4P graduates and its version of the program is considered a model for the state’s program as a whole.

“The continuation of this program hinges on the results we get from it,” SCCC Warden Michael Bowersox said. “Because of this program, much of the clientele we’re sending out of this facility is better than what’s coming in. For that reason, it’s going to continue.

“It’s going extremely well.”

On Wednesday of last week, the SCCC hosted a celebration of the fourth anniversary of its P4P program. Among the 100-plus attendees of the event were two representatives of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, a 154-year-old shelter organization in London, England with three locations and a staff of about 350.

During a multiple-day tour of several Show-Me-State prisons where P4P thrives, Battersea Chief Executive Officer Claire Horton and Director of Communications Dee McIntosh were gathering information and knowledge in order to present a case to British government ministers for beginning a similar program at prisons “across the pond.”

“In the past 24 hours we’ve been to three different facilities and seen three different sorts of programs working,” Horton said. “We’ve been talking to a lot of inmates, because it’s important to hear their side and the insight they can provide about how it works and how it makes them feel. I think the most common denominator in all this is the way the program has been received across the board – not just by inmates, but the wardens, prison staff and everyone else involved.

“And one of the things that has really staggered me is the sheer number of dogs that have passed through this program.”

“Seeing the inmates with the dogs has been superb,” McIntosh said. “We find it incredible, and everybody benefits in every part of the equation – the prisoners, the correctional centers, the animal shelters and certainly the animals.”

Should Battersea’s plan meet the approval of government officials, a pilot program will be launched at a prison in London.

“Our goal – and I think the government’s as well – is that if it works there it would eventually spread out throughout the country,” McIntosh said.

SCCC recreation officer Laurie Barnaba oversees the operation of the SCCC’s P4P program that currently has 13 dogs enrolled and 32 offender handlers. The usual procedure is to partner one dog with two cellmates.

Barnaba said the program at the SCCC has progressed dramatically since four years ago when the first four dogs were introduced to the first eight handlers.

“When we started, it was just basic obedience like sit, come and stay,” Barnaba said. “We now adopt out dogs for many specific purposes, like being companions to autistic children or disabled veterans, helper dogs, comfort dogs and more. It’s overwhelming. We’ve gone from making dogs into pets to something well beyond that.

“But the intelligence, knowledge and manpower are here, and with the help of The Animal Shelter of Texas County, we’re able to make this happen.”

Texas County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Anderson was also at last week’s anniversary event. He worked at the women’s prison at Vandalia in the late 1990s when a program involving dogs was introduced that ultimately formed a model for the current Puppies for Parole.

Anderson said the program in the men’s prisons has positive effects that go well beyond training dogs, including creating a valuable and unique level of accountability and more or less “policing itself.”

“It’s great for the prisons,” he said. “The prisoners have to earn the right to be part of the program, so you know every guy involved has displayed perfect behavior. They also can’t have any demerits to stay in the program, and that’s good for staff.

“It also gives these inmates something to focus on and look forward to day to day.”

Bowersox agreed.

“When you have someone being accountable for their own actions and policing themselves, so to speak, that’s what we’re after and that’s how we would like people to check out of here,” he said. “And once they get out, they know they can do the same thing on the outside because they practiced it here.”

“We’re seeing that this gives the offenders a sense of responsibility and purpose,” McIntosh said. “That’s special in a prison setting.”

“What we’re hearing from wardens and staff is that because of this program, there’s a calmer, more civil atmosphere around the prison,” Horton said.

SCCC institutional activity director Tina Holland recalls how that atmosphere immediately settled in the moment the first dogs entered the facility in 2010.

“There were four or five hundred offenders on the yard when they arrived, and the yard went totally silent,” Holland said. “That’s when we started to realize this was going to be more than we had first thought.”

When dogs are taken in at TASTC, they usually end up in the hands of Dr. Bryan Buttress of the Texas County Veterinary Clinic in Houston. Buttress, who also attended last week’s event, said it’s gratifying to watch dogs evolve and improve as they enter and exit the P4P program.

“It’s really good to see these animals have this opportunity that have been dumped, abused, neglected and don’t have a home,” Buttress said. “They’re basically given a second chance and a new life and they become dogs people can benefit from. It’s a great thing for everyone involved.”

Dogs enrolled in P4P come in all shapes, sizes and breeds. Some graduates have been disabled or even deaf.

“Like every person, every dog has something to offer,” Barnaba said.

While prisoners are “on the inside” for entirely negative reasons, those involved in the P4P program feel it allows them an opportunity to have a positive effect “on the outside.”

“We were talking to an offender who said he was in for life, but he had done 10 dogs,” McIntosh said. “He said he felt like every time one he has worked with goes to a home, a little bit of him goes with it. That’s very touching; he knew he wouldn’t be leaving that prison, but part of him was through the dogs he helped.”

Bowersox, Barnaba and DOC Director George Lombardi have all said that P4P can change an inmate by opening doors that have never before been open to them. By showing unconditional love, dogs can break down men who came from hard backgrounds, melt their hearts and then help them be rebuilt into altogether different individuals.

“One of the guys we talked to said he never had any love in his life and didn’t know how to love,” Horton said. “He said ‘then this dog comes along and in two weeks I was just in pieces.’ He said he couldn’t believe how he felt now.

“The dog has such an effect, because the handlers are considerate of how they treat it and speak to it, and they end up applying that to the way they deal with fellow inmates, the warden, people they meet from the shelter and people who come in to take these animals home. It’s just wonderful.”

Rita Romines, founder and board president of TASTC, said she’s amazed at how far the prison dogs program has progressed.

“The Puppies for Parole and Healing Paws program has more than exceeded my expectations,” Romines said. “It’s amazing how these Texas County dogs that have had a rough start in life have gone on to be such heroes. The board of directors and myself are looking forward to the coming years. What a great partnership – we’re so proud to be a part of it.”

The promotion means dogs entered into the program at the SCCC could be chosen as service dogs if they display certain traits and characteristics. If selected for advancement, they would then trained for specific service duties and routed to pre-determined destinations after graduation.

“We have only just begun to build this program,” Romines said, “and we’re excited about being promoted.” 

McIntosh said there’s a realistic chance a prison dogs program will begin in England.

“We’re optimistic because of the degree of interest our government is showing about this,” she said. “There’s no such thing in Britain and they’re very interested. We’re very excited about this project.”

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