MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — A program at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility is giving inmates and dogs a second chance.
Through the Fully Rescue Educational Development Program, inmates are paired with dogs from the PAW Animal Shelter in Fort Madison. The dogs stay with their handlers for about eight weeks, though that period sometimes varies based on the dogs’ progress. Their handlers work with them extensively throughout their stay to correct problem behaviors and make them more suitable for adoption.
“They have all been deemed unadoptable for one reason or another,” Andrea Wright, executive officer at MPCF, recently said of the roughly 10 dogs sitting quietly alongside their handlers in a classroom at the prison, where handlers and their dogs meet weekly to go over training tips and offer each other advice on how to address issues their dogs might be having.
The dogs haven’t always been so well-behaved or at ease, Wright explained, pointing to a pit bull named Syri ahead of her return to the Fort Madison shelter.
“Syri was scared to death and wouldn’t have anything to do with anybody,” she said as Syri lounged in the lap of Darren, whom she had lived alongside for the past 60 days. “(Darren’s) our dog whisperer.”
Syri is the 14th dog that Darren, whose last name is being withheld at the request of prison officials, has been handler to through the FRED program. The two recently said goodbye as Syri returned to the shelter and a large, white dog named Arctic took her place. Darren wasted no time getting to know Arctic, quickly working on commands like sit and lay down before carrying the bathmophobic canine downstairs.
Darren has been a handler with the FRED program since it first was launched at the facility in May 2017 by Wright and security supervisor Tony Fountain, who modeled it after similar programs they had seen at the Newton and Rockwell correctional facilities.
“I just thought it would be a really good program,” Wright said. “I think it has made a huge difference in the environment here. You see that happy talk and people are petting them, and it just brings a human touch back into the place.”
Inmates must show positive behavior for four months as well as receive good reviews from staff to be eligible to become handlers. Since it began, 87 dogs, not including the five that were recently brought to the facility, and 94 inmates have been part of the FRED program, which employs training techniques like those of animal behaviorist Cesar Millan. All but about 10 of those dogs have been adopted.
PAW Director Sandy Brown said the shelter has about 200 animals at any given time, and with only six employees, not all the animals can get the one-on-one time they need, which makes the FRED program so important.
The dogs share a room with their handlers and are under their care around the clock. There are about 20 secondary handlers who also can work with the dogs. After secondary handlers prove they can take on the responsibility of caring for and training the dogs, they can become primary handlers. Handlers are paid $100 per month to work with the dogs.
The handlers get to know the dogs well throughout their time spent together, and daily logs are kept detailing what the dogs have learned and what behaviors they have been working on. They also outline the dogs’ personalities.
Michael had prepared 25 pages detailing Juliet’s time with him, as well as her likes and dislikes, in hopes that information will encourage someone to adopt her.
“She’s scared of trash bags and carts,” he said before listing the Catahoula-lab mix’s numerous positive qualities.
The program isn’t just beneficial for the dogs. It’s also beneficial for their handlers.
“You see the awesome side to the dog, but you don’t realize how important it is to some of the handlers,” Wright said.
Zach’s voice grew thick with emotion as he spoke of the relationship he has developed with Hooch, a large, brown male pit bull who had been housed at PAWs for several months before coming to MPCF.
“I’ve been down for 15 years and I’ve got a year and a half to go, and Hooch is my saving grace,” Zach said, explaining Hooch helps him to keep busy and out of trouble. “Hooch has been my emotional support dog.”
While the goal for most dogs in the program is for them to return to the shelter to be adopted out, Hooch may stay with Zach until Zach’s sentence is finished, at which point Zach will take Hooch home, so long as his adoption application is approved.
“The dog you see here was not the same dog who came in,” Wright said of Hooch, remarking on the progress he’s made under Zach’s care.
Chad, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, said the dog’s companionship has helped him battle depression, as well as alleviate symptoms of PTSD.
“Emotionally, on days when I’m bummed out, he’s there. He kind of howls and talks to me,” Chad said of Porter, a lanky dog who came into the program with seemingly uncontrollable energy and little regard for commands.
After eight weeks with Chad, however, Porter has been deemed ready for adoption and was returned to the shelter as Chad was paired with Gwen, a bossy pit bull in need of a firm hand, as Chad is known for having.
“Knowing that I’m doing this and giving an obedient dog back to society is amazing,” Chad said.
The dogs don’t leave the program empty-pawed. Each receives a custom-made leather collar with their names on them that were designed and made by inmates.
Joshua proudly showed off a pink collar for his dog, Martha, who came to the shelter unable to walk well due to being overweight. Joshua has kept the senior dog on a healthy diet and made sure she gets plenty of exercise. She has lost 11.5 pounds as a result.
Martha isn’t the only one who has benefited from the relationship with her handler.
With her calm and mild-mannered demeanor, Martha has helped Joshua with his anxiety and depression.
“She’s helped me get through the days,” Joshua said as he put her collar back on.
Money for materials to make the collars as well as toys and treats for the dogs is raised through donations, as well as by selling Serta Mattress pillows to inmates. PAW pays for food and vet bills.