Friday, February 17, 2006

prison dogs

toby young ran the safe harbor prison dog program in kansas, teaching inmates to train dogs for adoption. this week, she left lansing prison with inmate john manard packed into a dog crate in the back of her van.

this is tough news for dog training programs. i'm most familiar with more intensive efforts to train dogs as helpers for disabled persons. i've spoken with inmates at shakopee correctional facility in minnesota about the powerful influence that such programs had on them. they devote considerable time, attention, and (yes) love to the animals, in the hope that the animals will do some good on the outside. the minnesota program fell victim to budget cuts, but the inmates swore by it.

i'm not aware of a rigorous program evaluation or cost-benefit analysis, but i like such programs for three reasons: (1) they make productive use of inmates' time and affections; (2) they provide a needed public service; and, (3) they help civilize prisons, offering a "carrot" with which administrators can reward good behavior (dog-time is much prized) and an opportunity for inmates to teach discipline. i can second or verify this blurb from ms. young's website:

Safe Harbor has more than 90 inmates in the dog program and the effect on these inmates is very profound. These inmates have something positive that they can be proud of. They write to their families and tell them every last detail about their current dog. They subscribe to dog magazines and research training methods and dog breeds. They attend weekly classes to teach them a bridge and target training method that we use in our program. They have formed teams to help each otherwith specific training issues. They ‘baby-sit’ each other’s dogs. The impact of this program is more far reaching than we will probably ever know. The prison store recently started carrying dog treats that inmates can buy at a cost of 45 cents for a pound of treats. It has been the fastest selling item in the store – inmates who aren’t even dog handlers have been buying treats for the dogs and so have officers who love having the dogs around. The dogs are the highlight of prison tours and visit inmates in the hospice center.

argh. i don't know whether ms. young hatched the escape for love or whether she was an unwitting pawn of the prisoners. i just hope that this escape doesn't compromise the good work of such programs.

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