LANSING, Kan. — The prison yard is filled with the sounds of men grunting as they lift heavy barbells that clang noisily when iron hits concrete. But Jerry McMullin is oblivious, focused only on a young German shepherd named Tess.
On his hands and knees in the nearby grass, McMullin gently talks to Tess, smiling as he coaxes her to lie down.
“Tess down,” he says, and she obeys.
“You want this?” he continues, handing her a chewed up red rubber ball. “Good girl.”
The scene is something of a paradox: sweaty, muscled men heaving to the rhythms of their workout while a kennel’s worth of puppies are doing what puppies do best. Yet it’s a fairly common setting at Lansing Correctional Facility, where 2,500 criminals are serving time for everything from forgery and robbery to rape and murder.
Since August 2004, the Safe Harbor Prison Dog Program has brought animals destined for doggie death row at area shelters to inmates like McMullin for training as pets.
On any given day, about 50 dogs are being trained by some 100 inmates at the combined medium- and maximum-security prison. They frolic in a penned area in the shadow of guard towers and high fences, or splash in a plastic wading pool. Because they can be trained quicker as pets than as service animals, they’re ready for adoption in just a couple of weeks.
More than 1,000 dogs adopted
About 1,200 dogs of all breeds and ages have been adopted under the program, financed by donations and a $150 adoption fee covering vaccinations, spaying or neutering.
More adopted dogs means more that can be rescued.
"We still want to save as many as we can,” says Janet Florence, the program’s president.
Warden David McKune thinks so much of the program that he kept it alive even after founder Toby Young in February spirited a convicted murderer out of prison in a dog crate in her van. The pair were caught about two weeks later in Tennessee.
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“Closing that program wasn’t a thought that occurred to me. That program is much bigger in its accomplishments than one person,” said McKune, whose prison is where killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, profiled in Truman Capote’s novel “In Cold Blood,” were executed in 1965.
McKune says what he believes to be the largest prison-based dog adoption program in the country helps reduce violence among inmates. “They may be having a crummy day and a dog comes up and starts licking them and things look better for them,” he says.
McMullin, 62, whose prison job has him compiling traffic accident data for the state Transportation Department, spends about 15 minutes four times a day training his dogs, rewarding them with treats from the leather pouch on his belt. They seem to respond better to hand signals, a technique he developed training deaf dogs.
“You don’t want to work with them too long or they stop paying attention. They get bored,” he says. “I use no force or fear, positive reinforcement only. You’ve got to get them to do what you want and make them think it was their idea.”
First program was started by nun
The first prison program to train service dogs was started in 1981 in Washington state by Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun. Similar programs to train dogs as service animals or pets sprang up across the country, including California, Massachusetts, Missouri, Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
Dr. Joe Scroppo, director of North Shore University Hospital’s forensic psychiatry program in Manhasset, N.Y., says limited research on inmates working with animals shows promising findings.
“It does have a positive impact on an inmate. It seems to decrease depression and other kinds of mental health problems. It’s kind of like a therapy for them,” says Scroppo, former supervising psychologist at New York City’s Rikers Island jail.
The dogs love all the attention. Prisoners play with them and make them leather leashes or collars, or crochet sweaters for them. Some guards and inmates carry dog treats — sold at 45 cents a pound at the canteen to prisoners earning around $1 a day.
'Gives you a purpose'
Inmates say the dogs make prison life a little more tolerable.
“It gives you a purpose. You’re doing something positive. You come back to your room and somebody is glad to see you, and it’s not another guy,” says McMullin, who is hoping for release next year on the murder conviction that put him here in 1980.
A dog named Rosie brings out the softer side of Pete Spencer, 6-foot-tall and a muscular 170 pounds. He leans over and baby talks to the shepherd mix puppy with love-filled eyes. Except for the blue prison uniform, it could be a scene from suburbia.
“I know it sounds silly for a man in prison to talk in a high voice but it works,” he says. “The reward is having the dog respond. I’ll sound silly for a dog.”
Spencer, 34, who has been serving time since 1991 for killing a schoolteacher he met outside a bar, snaps his fingers to get Rosie’s attention and tells her quietly but firmly to “sit.” Rosie, tethered to a woven leather leash Spencer made, obeys.
Some call Spencer a “dog whisperer.” He’s able to reach troubled animals others can’t.
“I had one who was so physically abused, he had no trust in humans,” Spencer says. “I slept on the floor with him for a month to get his trust and then I taught him commands.”
Techniques vary with the trainers. They use a combination of voice commands and hand signals to housebreak the animals and school them in the basics, like walking on a leash.
“Every dog is different. They’re as different as people. You just have to find out what the dog likes,” Bovi Lewis says as he watches Choco, a brown lab puppy, chew on a tuft of grass.
Lewis avoids treats.
“Sometimes, I reward with treats, but it’s like you’re trying to bribe them. If you can get them to do it for just doing it, that’s better,” says Lewis, who has spent 14 of his 42 years in prison for rape and attempted murder.
Better outlook for inmates
The inmates receive no extra pay or time credit on their sentence for the training. They work with the dogs after their paying jobs end, romping around in the yard, in their cells or the dorm rooms. Some even take their dogs to work. At night, dog and trainer stay together — curled up in bed or stretched out on the floor.
All this nurturing is paying off.
“When I first met (McMullin), he was ... well, pretty grouchy,” Spencer says. “Now he’s more open and alive and he has a positive outlook.”
Any sadness the trainers feel when the dogs leave to start new lives is short-lived because there are always other dogs, eager to learn.
“They leave here with their tail high up and their ears perked out,” Spencer says.
And for these men who are trying to turn their own troubled lives around, there’s no doubt they feel proud.
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