Inmates give a boost to fledgling guide dogs Prisoners raise pups, teach them commands

July 10, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

The new inhabitants at the state women's prison in Jessup frolic with each other, bathe outdoors and sometimes bark at night.

Alexis, Bailey, Camry, Dottie and Hunny are Labrador retriever puppies. They're being raised by inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women with the hope that the dogs will become guides for the blind.

The four 12-week-old goldens and one 16-week-old chocolate spend their time eating, sleeping, working, and playing with their inmate handlers, who teach them basic commands and get them used to being with people in different settings.

The dogs will stay at Jessup for a year and a half, then be sent to Ohio to complete training as guide dogs.

"This isn't just my pet, I'm raising this dog to let someone who is in their own type of prison have a little freedom," said Cynthia Smith, who proposed bringing the pups to prison and now cares for Bailey. "This is a tangible contribution."

Smith, who is serving 25 years for killing her husband, got the idea for inmates to raise dogs about 18 months ago after seeing a television program on the nonprofit Pilot Dogs.

The Columbus, Ohio-based group that breeds and trains guide dogs sent five pups to an Ohio prison in 1992 to give inmates a community service project and to help meet the demand for guide dogs, said Jennifer Brennan, executive director of Pilot Dogs' puppy program.

The program expanded and has placed 95 dogs in 22 Ohio prisons and at Jessup. More than 100 others are raised by 4-H groups and private families throughout Ohio, Brennan said.

Smith researched the program, contacted Pilot Dogs and brought a proposal to Warden Patricia Phelps Schupple at the Jessup prison.

"The program has been very beneficial in terms of overall inmate morale," said Schupple. "It provides an opportunity for the handlers to feel like they're doing something good. Even the other inmates feel like they have a part in this."

Statistics from Pilot Dogs show that 60 percent of the dogs bred, raised and trained in all of its guiding programs graduate and are placed with a blind owner. But of the pups raised in prisons, 69 percent make the grade.

The ones raised in prison "respond a lot quicker to verbal commands and verbal corrections," Brennan said.

"They're better suited for different situations: For an older person who doesn't have as much strength as a younger person, [the dogs] have better control over them. Or perhaps someone who works in an office setting and needs a dog to be quiet."

The secret is in the attention they get.

"These dogs are with these women 24 hours a day," said Michael L. Stinnet, assistant warden at the Jessup prison. "The touch means a lot. The big crowds constantly mean a lot."

To apply for the dog program, the inmates must have served at least a year of their sentences, have at least two years to go, have a clean prison record and have some experience with pets. They must also agree to waive the right to transfer from their current facility.

Twenty-four women applied, Stinnet said. They do not get special treatment for caring for the dogs, nor does their volunteerism help reduce their jail time.

"We turned it into more or less a labor of love," Stinnet said.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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