There is a new addition to the usual presence of inmates, guards and wardens in the Hawkins Center for Women, just outside Little Rock, Arkansas: dogs. While it is an unusual concept, Paws in Prison brings together prisoners and puppies in order to change the lives of both.
The program was introduced in three men's units on December 8, 2011 and a week later, it was taken to the Hawkins Center. Funded entirely by donations from members of the public, Paws in Prison rescues dogs that have been abandoned and are at risk of being put down, and places them in prisons with the inmates.
Two dogs are assigned per barracks, each with two inmates to take care of and train them. The dogs are with the women 24/7, sleeping in the barracks with the inmates, even accompanying them to their jobs within the prison.
It is not just those inmates in the program who benefit, however. As Shea Wilson, Communications Administrator for the Arkansas Department of Corrections explains: "When the dogs are off-leash in the barracks, they're able to interact with the other inmates."
Once a week, a trainer comes to the facility to teach the inmates how to train the dogs. The training involves all the basics that would be required by new adoptive families, such as house-training and the usual behavioral commands like sit, stay, and heel.
The training does not just end with these sessions. Being with the dogs full-time means the inmates are constantly in contact with them and always able to build on their training. This also allows for dogs to become re-acclimatized to spending time around both people and other dogs.
Families are not always able to devote the time to train a dog, with responsibilities like work and school. The program not only allows for the dogs to go to a good family, rather than being put down, but it ensures that they can do so without needing to be trained once they are adopted.
For inmate Belynda Goff, the dogs are "someone to pay attention to, someone to care for, someone to connect with, that you can share an emotional bond with. The dogs, that's what they need, is love, tlc, and us dog handlers, that's what we need too."
Although it is a very newly initiated program, it has already begun to reap the benefits. Relationships between inmates have improved, as have the interactions between inmates and guards. One guard is even known to carry dog treats in his pocket, ready for any dog he might meet on his daily rounds.
"It's a better working environment for a lot of people. It makes things a lot calmer, there's not near as many complaints," says guard Kyle Johnson.
The dogs act as ice-breakers: people meeting such lively and friendly animals are not able to resist bending down and petting them. It reduces the tension because people are no longer focusing on each other and their relative positions within the jail but rather, on the dog. The new presence becomes an easy topic of conversation and commonality.
"I think it improves inmate attitudes, I think it improves the whole atmosphere in the unit because these dogs are living in the barracks with the inmates," explains Wilson.
The inmates of the Hawkins Centre are currently training their second class of dogs. The first group 'graduated' in February and were promptly adopted into new and excited families.
While the women are sad to see the dogs leave after becoming so well acquainted with them, they are happy to know that they are making a difference to these dogs lives despite being in prison. The program also gives them skills that they can take with them when they are released, and for those who are not going to be released, it gives them a purpose and a sense of achievement.
"It gives them something positive to do while they're here. They get to do something important that matters, and they know they're helping people on the outside by doing it, and they want to do that."