A heartwarming program at Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facilities is changing lives for both prison inmates and dogs in need. Despite its intimidating exterior, thick brick walls topped with barbed wire, incredible things happen within the walls of facilities like SCI (State Correctional Institution) Chester. Beginning in 2001, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began partnerships with multiple animal-related organizations. Inmates who earn the privilege can work with dogs in a variety of ways, an experience that has proven transformative for everyone involved.
“There are many types of canine programs in PA ranging from inmates teaching socialization and obedience skills to shelter dogs, raising puppies to become service dogs for individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities, or even herding geese to maintain a cleaner facility,” the Department of Corrections website explains.
Inmates interested in working with dogs must first go through a rigorous application process. They fill out forms and complete interviews, all to ensure they’re a good fit for the program. Once accepted, inmates become full-time caregivers and trainers for their assigned dogs. Inmates feed their dogs, work on basic or advanced training, and even share a cell with their four-legged friends.
Wags Rescue & Referral, who partners with SCI Chester, sends one of their trainers each week to check on the inmates’ progress with their dogs. Additionally, inmates receive weekly assignments to complete with their trainees. Each dog taken in by an inmate frees up space in local rescues, allowing them to save even more lives. And in the process, it gives inmates a sense of purpose.
“Some of the dogs come here and you figure they’re incorrigible,” an inmate named Larry explained to FOX 29. “But after a few weeks with us, they turn out to be some nice dogs.”
“It’s giving me some goals to set, towards furthering something in life,” said Graham, another inmate.
When it’s time for the dogs to move on to their furever homes, each one leaves with a hand-written letter from their trainer. Goodbyes are bittersweet, but it’s a constant reminder to inmates that they have the capacity to put a lot of good into the world. And they’re doing it, one dog at a time.