Eleven green-clad inmates sat in a wide circle in the middle of the prison visiting room, awaiting instructions, but mostly – awaiting an opportunity to meet for the first time the OccuPaws dogs that the trainers (Barb, Lois, John and Coleman) had brought with them: Maui, the poodle; Lava, the yellow lab; Netty, the black lab; and Dusty, Barb’s young service dog.
Before the training began, the dogs were handed over to the inmates. Introductions were made. And it was clear that like us when we began, they didn’t know how to hold a leash, how and when to offer a treat, or what voice to use when talking to an OccuPaws guide-dog-in-training. An hour-and-a-half later, some progress had been made.
At the next session the inmates were clearly more comfortable in their roles. And at the end of the session, two two-person inmate raiser teams took the dogs that would soon be theirs into their cellblock, which New Lisbon calls a unit. An OccuPaws volunteer trainer went with each team. It was the first time the dogs were to see their new homes, six-by-ten concrete and steel cells crowded with two bunks, two lockers and a standard dog crate. The inmates led the dogs into their cells, and like the good pups they are, they immediately went into their crates. I watched as one of the inmates sat on the floor beside the crate, wiping a tear from his face. Then it was time to show the dogs the two adjoining outdoor areas that the prison had prepared for them, one for play (OccuPark), the other a potty area (Business District).
UPDATE: January 30, 2020
There are now sixteen raisers with seven (soon to be eight) OccuPaws dogs at the New Lisbon prison. These men have proven themselves to be quick learners and worthy raisers. Perhaps most notable is how they work together as eight two-man teams, and one larger team, in the training and caring for their dogs. One also must credit the prison staff, who have been active participants in the program and have been supportive every step of the way.
One of the raisers has already served 21 years in prison; another has served 30 years. Imagine, if you can, what it might be like after 30 years in prison, to have an OccuPaws dog entrusted to you. Imagine that your dog lives with you in your cell. Imagine that you get to take on the responsibility of training a guide dog; that you get to help others while you are still behind bars.
What we do – this raising of guide dogs – is a good thing. When we combine it with providing prisoners this opportunity, it’s a great thing.