While Rachel’s husband, Sean, did his time at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI), a minimum-security prison in Oregon, she struggled to maintain the parent-child bond between him and their three children. She brought them to the monthly family visits, but the atmosphere was austere, controlled and, for kids, dull. Families sat on metal benches around a table, and several families shared one large, noisy dining hall under the watchful eye of guards.
For Rachel, precious bonding time was often spent keeping her youngest, a fiveyear- old girl with Down syndrome, from fidgeting. The older children, ages nine and 13, distracted themselves, asking permission to go to the bathroom or the vending machine. Rachel often had to cut short the family’s visits.
All that began to change about a year ago, when therapy dogs became part of CRCI’s “Children’s Events,” special occasions for the families of inmates participating in parenting classes. Sean and other inmates involved in the parenting program constructed a brightly painted and decorated room specifically for family events, so that the setting might be homier. “Having the kids’ area was way better; no metal chairs anymore. Earlier, it was more restrictive than school!” he recalls now from the comfort of his home, reunited with his family after completing his sentence.Rachel agrees, and also mentions how much the therapy animals who were part of the family events helped their youngest daughter.“She’d talk about the animals for a week after each visit. They helped the older kids as well—got ’em away from the vending machine!”
Rachel saw her developmentally disabled daughter blossom around the dogs. “Animals help her communicate, mellow her out.We have three cats at home, and just got a Beagle. My daughter is learning to say ‘Good boy!’ and ‘Awesome!’ and give our dog positive reinforcement.” During the family events, both kids and parents learn how to interact with pets. “They teach gentle ways of interacting, because most inmates are abusers, or had been abused—that’s why they’re there— and the program teaches them how to pet rather than smack or pull a tail,” said Rachel.
This innovative program—putting volunteers with therapy animals into prisons during special parenting events —is the brainchild of three creative and compassionate women who blended several resources and programs to create a brand-new vision.
Rozlyn Gorski had the initial idea. She is involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Portland,Ore., and works with a subset of kids, Children with Incarcerated Parents. She knows how stressful and difficult maintaining a positive parent-child bond can be when a parent is incarcerated.
Gorski knows Heather Toland of DoveLewis, a Portland-area nonprofit emergency animal hospital with a large community-outreach and animal-welfare component.Toland is director of the Animal Assisted Therapy and Education program at DoveLewis. When Gorski wondered aloud if therapy dogs could help the kids she worked with, Toland quickly grasped the value of the idea, and signed on to help.
Gorski’s idea had merit. Toland possessed the ability to procure and train the volunteer handlers and dogs. But how to get them integrated into the prison family visits? Enter Dawnell Kirk,Western Regional Manager for Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide parenting classes to inmates. Pathfinders is also a community partner with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Kirk immediately saw the advantages of adding therapy animals to the family events, visits that were already a reward to inmates participating in parenting classes. Inviting the animals upped the reward ante significantly for the inmates, while also providing a clear therapeutic benefit to the families.
Kirk went to CRCI administration and asked, “What about bringing in some animals?”She then worked with the security manager to do just that. “They were so supportive,” she remembers. “We got the dogs in. They were a huge hit. The kids adore them. One gentleman said it was the first time he’d petted a dog in 10 years. It’s a nice place for children to learn to be with pets,”she says.“It’s a really good bonding moment for incarcerated parents and kids. Something to talk about with each other.”
Toland asked Kirk about bringing other types of therapy animals to the family events—in particular, a goat named Gracie. Once again, it was Kirk’s task to ask the prison administrator. “I’ll go down as the woman who got a goat into prison,” jokes Kirk. “Prison staff came down to see Gracie; everyone enjoyed it,” she said about that first event with the goat. Audie, a therapy cat, is also a popular visitor.
Indirectly, the animals help bring inmates into the parenting program. “Inmates not part of the program see the animals coming for the family events, and there’s more interest in the parenting classes,” which are voluntary, says Kirk. Each parenting course meets three times a week, three hours each day, for twelve weeks. “It’s very intense. It’s specific for incarcerated parents,” she adds. Those on the wait list can attend the family events with the animals, and a parent doesn’t have to complete the program to attend. Kirk isn’t worried that some inmates might sign up just for the animals, with no intention to complete the parenting course. “We track it,” she said. “It’s been a positive influence. One man signed up because he has three daughters. He wanted to be the class assistant. He was released to the community and has continued to participate at the Pathfinders Community Center with his daughters.”
Kirk’s next task was to approach Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP)—the maximumsecurity institution—about using therapy animals there. Kirk started warming up officials to the idea, describing the success at CRCI. She was surprised, and delighted, to be asked by the OSP assistant superintendent,“ Can the goat come?”Another door was opened. (Who knows—perhaps the OSP assistant superintendent was influenced by hearing how the CRCI superintendent had his photo taken with Gracie and used it as his official Christmas card last year.)
According to Kirk, the Oregon Department of Corrections supports the inmates as parents. Incorporating therapy animals into family events for those inmates participating in parenting classes is one way of making that support real.
The participating kids and parents all tell Kirk,“We want the animals back!”At every family event, the kids ask her,“Are the dogs here?!”Unfortunately, the animals aren’t available for every family event at every institution.Not yet. But if Kirk has her way, that won’t be the case for long. Just this spring, the therapy animal concept expanded to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in Oregon, which already has a puppy-training program.
Kirk sees positive changes in the inmates interacting with the animals. “There’s a softening in their demeanor. Even those not participating in parenting classes ask to pet the dogs. It’s such a good thing. It’s therapy.” So far, she reports, there hasn’t been a single negative encounter, for animals, handlers or families.
Early on, those involved realized that the typical family visiting session at the prison was too noisy and busy for a basic “Reading-to-the-Dogs” program. They also wanted to include a humane education component.When the dogs come to a family event, everyone learns how to approach them and how to meet and engage appropriately; the kids learn how to brush the dogs, then are allowed to teach their fathers those skills. “The program is very new, but shows lots of promise,”Toland says.The idea is for the dogs to be a calming distraction for the children while inside prison walls, making the parent-child interactions more normal as well as providing a teaching opportunity and a communication bridge.
Toland determines which dogs and handlers participate in the program. “I keep pretty tight control,” she says. Volunteers take a skills-for-handlers course, and because of the dogs’ contact with multiple kids and the unusual environment, they also learn about coping skills for dogs. “Sometimes we have to help a handler recognize displacement in their dog, as in, ‘I’m done!’” Through DoveLewis, handlers can also take continuing- ed classes, such as silly pet tricks, massage and canine health.
This program—screening and training of volunteer handlers and dogs—is now a regular part of DoveLewis’s activities, along with its pet loss, blood bank, stray animal and wildlife care, and other animal welfare programs.
Penny and her dog Charity, a five-year-old yellow Lab, are volunteers in the prison program. Charity is a certified therapy dog, and the pair had often participated in Reading to the Dogs programs through DoveLewis. Toland mentioned the prison program to Penny and told her that this use of therapy dogs was different —for one thing, a thorough background check was required.“It sounded like something to try,” Penny says.
As their first visit to CRCI loomed, Penny recalls, “All day long I was hesitant.” She said to herself,“How can I get out of this? I was fearful for my personal —and my dog’s—safety. This was my first time visiting a prison.”
Two of the four volunteers going with Penny that day had participated before and they gave her tips on what to say,how to behave, what to watch for. Penny’s experienced mentors offered practical advice: Don’t wear denim (looks too much like inmates’ uniforms), no underwire bras (they set off metal detectors), and do wear a bright yellow T-shirt (DoveLewis’s color) so the group stands out as visitors.
Upon reaching the institution, the handlers went through security, starting with a holding room where cell phones, keys, jewelry and similar items were stored in lockers. Each of them then passed through a metal detector, alone. Their dogs were led through by a guard. “Charity acted as though this was a typical environment for her. I saw no sign of stress or anxiety. She was very calm,” Penny says.
Once inside, they were led to the family room.“It has cute decorations,murals, small furniture,”Penny says.“The inmates did all the murals, built the furniture, did the decorating. It was warm.” Then they were led to the cafeteria to meet the inmates. “All the guys were lined up in a row.We walked past them, 50 of them in jeans and denim. It was intimidating,” Penny remembers.
Penny and the other handlers brought their own mats and blankets for sitting on the floor with their dogs.They offered the kids books (each child gets one to take home), but mostly, “the kids loved brushing the dogs,” says Penny.“One girl kept coming back to brush Charity. I gave her lots of positive reinforcement.”
On a subsequent visit, in addition to Charity, there were two German Shepherds and a Rottweiler.“ Many of the kids were fearful of the other dogs. One guy said, ‘Last time I saw a German Shepherd is when he was pinning me down before I got arrested,’” Penny remembers, noting that the Rottie has painted toenails and a flower-print collar to make her less intimidating to the kids. The dogs are always on-leash during events. “It’s a therapy dog rule,” explains Penny.“The handler is always attached to the leash.But I can let a child walk Charity with both of us holding the leash.”
A couple of fathers without kids attended—they had ongoing custody issues, or their kids lived out of state. Those men were assigned to look out for the handlers’ needs.Penny found them all “amazingly polite.”At one event, the food served was pizza and ice cream.When a child offered some food to Charity and Penny politely said no, some of the fathers teased Penny, saying she was awfully strict and wondering if Charity was neglected.
“The flow of people during an event keeps moving,with only one or two kids at a time to keep the dogs from feeling overwhelmed,”Penny says.“It just seems to happen naturally. The kids are good at waiting for their turn. Charity got tired toward the end. She crashed when we got home.”
Penny believes this program helps make inmates better parents.“Many admit to me they’ve messed up and are paying their debt. They hope people will give them a chance. They really appreciate that the handlers and dogs treat them like regular members of society.”
One rule is that handlers don’t use names during visits. They remove all ID, even dog tags that have contact information. “Only one time did I feel slightly uncomfortable,” said Penny.“One inmate started asking me questions in conversation, but the questions got progressively more personal—too personal, I felt. He recognized it was too personal and changed the topic.”
Penny recalls how she mistakenly signed up for the first event at Oregon State Penitentiary. The maximum-security prison.Upon realizing her error, she figured she’d go anyway, but she then had a nightmare about it, so she backed out. She had similar anxiety about visits to the minimum-security facility, “but I had the nicest possible experience there.” Penny’s concerns are more for Charity than for herself—Charity, who has no choice in the matter, could be more easily victimized. Penny worries about even a minor negative interaction; she and Charity have too much invested in therapy dog work. “I don’t want to mess it up. I’d never forgive myself if Charity was traumatized.” So for now, Penny declines to volunteer for OSP visits, but continues to participate enthusiastically in the CRCI visits.
“This experience teaches you a lot about stereotypes of prisoners,” says Penny.“It’s been eye-opening,how appreciative, polite and considerate they are. It’s been good for me to see. They know they made mistakes, and they admit it. They’re trying to keep their kids from making mistakes, trying to be good parents. This restores your faith in humanity.Dogs help us do that. Charity is the connection; I’m just her chauffeur!”
Photographs Jeffery Walls