For a few prison residents, a weekend furlough means a romp on some well-heeled turf.
The silver van rolls in from a New Jersey lockup on a Saturday morning and its passengers happily jump out: six Labrador retrievers being raised by inmates to become explosives-detection canines or guide dogs for the blind.
Their city visits are part of the drill. Volunteers expose the pups to both New York’s cacophony of sounds and its high life, taking their furry charges everywhere from church to cocktail parties and Broadway shows.
“In prison, they can’t get used to traffic, crowds, fire engines, cars, trucks, loud noises. Inside, I’ve had dogs startled by a hair dryer, or an electric toothbrush,” said Ali Nortier, an investment banker who volunteers as a dog “sitter” for Puppies Behind Bars, a Manhattan nonprofit that runs the program.
Inmates each get dog for year and a half
In addition to the female inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, N.J., more than 100 convicts in four New York state prisons and one in Connecticut each get a dog for about a year and a half. They live with the animals in their cells, disciplining them, feeding them and brushing their teeth, playing with them and keeping a journal of their progress.
Similar programs around the country — from Georgia to Washington state — have inmates training dogs to assist the disabled, doing everything from switching on lights to fetching medicine, opening refrigerator and cabinet doors, even calling for help on a special 911 phone.
During their New York City furloughs, dogs that are at least six months old wear canvas jackets that read: “Puppies Behind Bars, Explosives-Detection Dog in Training,” graced with an American flag.
On a recent Saturday, five-month-old Potter, a yellow Lab destined for bomb-sniffing work, met her volunteer, Nortier, who took the creamy yellow pup on a romp to the 80-story Time Warner Center, a new luxury commercial complex at Columbus Circle.
Potter, accustomed to the vivid green lawns of the Edna Mahan prison, suddenly plopped her rear on the white marble and began whimpering, not used to her handler or the unfamiliar surroundings.
'You have to watch them all the time'
Outside, Potter was nonplussed by the traffic, crowds and noise. And she quickly learned a trick: picking up whatever came her way, from trash to food — with a quick sleight-of-muzzle, then gleefully chewing on it.
“You have to watch them all the time! And you’re constantly taking stuff out of their mouth,” said an equally nonplussed Nortier.
On Sunday afternoon, the dogs are driven back to the prison, about 60 miles west of New York City near the Pennsylvania border.
Puppies Behind Bars was started in 1997 by Gloria Gilbert Stoga, of Manhattan, who became interested in guide dogs after adopting a Labrador retriever that had been hit by a truck and released from guide training.
The dogs receive care 24 hours a day, seven days a week — free of charge. The prisoners benefit too.
“I took a life,” says Rose Eschmann, who’s at Edna Mahan for vehicular homicide, “and this gives me a chance to give something back — to save a life.”
Eschmann is training Sandi, a jet black two-month-old Lab that’s still too young for a furlough.
“This involves making a long-term commitment — and getting a different kind of reward,” said Matthew Schuman, spokesman for the New Jersey correction department.
World-class service dogs
By all accounts, the program is producing world-class service dogs.
Two Labs raised at Edna Mahan are now working in the security detail of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, says Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who founded Puppies Behind Bars eight years ago.
Dogs also serve in Malaysia, Cyprus and Italy, as well as throughout the United States.
Four were donated to the New York Police Department Bomb Squad, whose need for explosive-detecting canines intensified after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Edna Mahan program produces “dogs that in general have more obedience training. And that speeds up the dogs’ ability to get into specialized training,” said Detective Glenn Ostermann of the NYPD Bomb Squad, whose 3-year-old bomb-sniffing Bowmann is a product of Puppies Behind Bars.
Bowmann, who once spent his weekdays at an upstate lockup in Fishkill, has been sweeping possible terrorist targets like Grand Central Terminal, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the bullpen and dugouts at Yankee Stadium during games. He has also sniffed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private jet and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Manhattan hotel suite.
Some of Bowmann’s canine cohorts train at the Edna Mahan prison, amid manicured lawns and trees set against rolling hills and woods as far as the eye can see. A daylong training class starts in a room near prison cells, the air filled with the soft grating sound of dogs chewing on bones.
Potter, for one, gets high marks from humans on both sides of the fence.
Potter’s prison parent, Kitty Pipicz, who’s serving an aggravated manslaughter sentence for a traffic fatality, wrote a note to volunteer Nortier describing the pup as “sensitive” and “soft.”
Pipicz says the dogs return from their furloughs “all excited and hyper from all they’ve seen and done.”
“That’s good,” she said, “so they won’t freak out when they’re working in the real world.”