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New Leash on Life

In an innovative program, prison inmates are raising puppies to be guide dogs for the blind

Willi Richards nearly loses his footing when his guide dog, Victoria, lurches forward. It’s a stunning lapse in behavior, one that Richards, 47, has rarely experienced in the three years since Victoria, a black Lab, became his eyes. “Victoria is usually so polite,” he says. She sits through Sunday worship without fidgeting, bearing a beatific expression that disarms the church ladies. Just this morning, Victoria got Richards from his Brooklyn apartment to Grand Central Station and then onto a crowded train with a calm purposefulness not generally evident in rush-hour commuters.

But a little over an hour later, when the pair arrive at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in Westchester County, New York, Victoria’s composure fails her and she makes a beeline for the prison entrance.

Richards laughs at her excitement, and quickens his pace as she leads him through guarded gates and steel doors, up a hill and into a low-slung housing complex where two dozen inmates have been eagerly awaiting them. Some call out, but 39- year-old Mercedes Smith sits quietly in a green plastic chair in the middle of the room. Then she opens her arms wide, and in a flash Victoria is by her side. “My girl,” Smith says, cradling Victoria’s head. “My good, good girl.” Then Smith rises and hugs Richards. “Thank you for coming, Willi.”

“No, thank you, Mercedes,” he responds, “for Victoria.” Richards turns to face the other women. “And thank all of you for what you do,” he says. “Believe me, you are making a big difference in the world.”

Some of the women tear up. One or two crack jokes to hide their embarrassed pleasure. Like Smith, these women are convicted felons, serving hard time for hard crimes. But through a nonprofit program called Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), they also are allowed to raise guide dogs for blind people— and, since 9/11, bomb-sniffing police dogs.

Raising a potential guide dog is a serious and lengthy proposition. Puppies arrive at about 8 weeks of age and spend the next 16 months in the care of inmates who are responsible for their nurturing and training 24 hours a day. At night, the puppies curl up in the prisoners’ locked cells.

In a way, the prison serves as a sort of canine prep school. The “puppy raisers,” as they are called, teach the dogs manners and obedience before they begin formal training.

But the teachers say they are learning even more. “Raising Victoria was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Smith, who has served 12 years of a 20-years-to-life sentence for second- degree murder. “And next to my children, she is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Seven years after it began, Puppies Behind Bars has expanded to six prisons in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where 52 women and 61 men are currently raising 56 dogs. “Most people can change,” says Elaine Lord, who retired recently as superintendent after working nearly 20 years at Bedford Hills. “We need to give inmates meaningful work that will bring about that change—because most of them will get out, and our job is to make sure they aren’t dangerous to society, but contributing members of society.”

The program costs participating states nothing. PBB’s $650,000 annual budget comes entirely from donations. Corporations such as J.P. Morgan Chase can sponsor and name a dog for $3,000. Comedian Chevy Chase (pup: Chevy) and actress Doris Roberts of “Everybody Loves Raymond” (pup: Raymond) are supporters. Anetwork of about 300 volunteers does everything from chauffeuring the pups to veterinarians to taking them home on weekends and introducing them to situations they wouldn’t experience in prison: ringing phones, busy streets, rambunctious children.

Roslyn D. Smith, 42, has been behind bars for a quartercentury, sentenced at age 17 to two consecutive 50-years-tolife terms for three counts of second-degree murder and firstdegree robbery. “I’ve tried it all, from drugs to the homosexual life,” she says. “I’ve been a Muslim, I’ve been a Catholic, you name it, doing whatever I could to run away from myself.” She has raised three puppies. “The puppies are so alive and trusting and hopeful, you can’t help but become a better person for them, and for yourself.”

PBB was started at Bedford Hills in 1997 by Gloria Gilbert Stoga, 49, then serving on New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s Youth Empowerment Services Commission. Few thought anything good would come of the program. Some corrections officers didn’t believe inmates deserved to raise puppies. Or they feared the prisoners would mistreat them, or train them to attack guards. Stoga understood their concerns. Aself-described political conservative, she had little regard for criminals. But in 1991, she adopted an 18-month-old black Lab, Arrow, that had been released for medical reasons from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. And four years later, she read a newspaper story about prisoners in Ohio who raised puppies for the blind. Every few months for the next two years, Stoga, who worked for Giuliani finding jobs for inner-city kids, would reread the article and cry. Finally, she says, her husband said, “Do something about it, or let it go.”

Letting go is not something Stoga does easily. She got a second released dog, 8-week-old Carlos, for Christmas, quit her job, and learned how to train him by going with him through the Guiding Eyes guide dog program. “I already knew the impact these dogs make in the lives of blind people, and I somehow intuitively grasped what they could do for prisoners,” says Stoga. “It just made perfect sense.”

But none of the guide dog schools she contacted agreed. Even after she’d gotten a go-ahead from Bedford prison to begin her program, she had no puppies. Frustrated, Stoga made a calculated bet. She offered to buy five puppies rejected by Guiding Eyes for the Blind—at $500 apiece—to board with the inmates. Three weeks later, the Guiding Eyes board decided to give her the rejected dogs for free. “Here were people written off by society raising puppies written off as guide dogs,” she says. “And they succeeded!” Two of the five puppies went on to become guide dogs.

A little more than half of the puppies raised by inmates become guide dogs. (The others are let go mostly for health or personality reasons.) Since Stoga’s initial success, Guiding Eyes has supplied most of PBB’s puppies, about 35 a year.

“The inmates are highly motivated and raise very well-behaved dogs, as good as those of our best raisers,” says Jane Russenberger, senior director of breeding and placement for Guiding Eyes. The organization pairs some 165 blind people with dogs each year at a cost to the school of $28,000 per dog. Recipients pay nothing.

Inmates who raise puppies are carefully chosen. Applicants must have a clean disciplinary record for at least a year, and they are further screened and interviewed by prison officials, by Stoga and by other raisers. (“Any of you got a problem with picking up poop or vomit, say it now!” demanded one PBB inmate to three visibly nervous candidates.) Two raisers—a primary caretaker and a backup—are assigned to each puppy. The inmates, who live with their pups in a housing unit separate from the general prison population, take the dogs most everywhere, from prison jobs to dental appointments. There’s a six-hour training session once a week. The raisers learn how to teach their charges to climb stairs, come when called and to neither bark nor beg. One inmate, whose pup was destined for a guide dog school in France, learned to give commands in French. “To watch them grow and learn and to know that you’re responsible, well, that goes deep,” says Jean Coaxum, 50, who has served 20 years of a 15-years-to-life term for second-degree murder and attempted robbery—and is now raising her fifth puppy. “You get confidence, and you believe that you can do something good.”

Since November 1998, Jim Hayden has watched the puppies work their magic at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a prison that houses 1,750 men in Beacon, New York. Though only 25 of the inmates are raisers, “the dogs have had a calming, humanizing effect on the entire staff, me included,” says Hayden, who is assistant deputy superintendent of programs. “They’ve broken these inmates down, taken their hard shells and cracked them open. Their level of love for and commitment to these dogs is something I never expected to see.”

A 20-month analysis sponsored by the pet food company Iams, which donates food for PBB, supports Hayden’s observations. Prisoners who raised puppies reported greater overall well-being than a group of inmates who hadn’t worked with the dogs. The PBB inmates proved more compassionate and responsible, and believed they could turn their lives around.

Tony Garcia, 42, raised four PBB dogs before being released from Fishkill last January after serving 16 years for armed robbery. He now supports a wife and four children by painting apartments and has applied for a full-time job as a case worker for an organization that aids ex-convicts. “The patience and hope I have, and my willingness to work hard,” says Garcia, “I got from being in that program.”

Jake Charest, 27, who is serving his ninth year of a 7-to-21- year sentence for attempted murder, is raising his second dog, Skip. “All of us in the program are sorry for what we’ve done, but instead of just saying it, which is easy, we’re showing it,” he says. “These dogs make time here almost bearable.”

Like prison inmates everywhere, most of the puppy raisers at Fishkill had perfected the intimidating look that says, “Don’t mess with me.” That facade does not work with puppies. “Your macho persona is a goner with these dogs,” says Ronald Jones, 33, who has served 12 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for murder. He is raising his second dog, an impish 8-month-old black Lab named Cooper. “I’ve seen 6-foot-2, 250-pound guys rolling around on the floor kissing and talking in a high voice to their dogs. We all do it, even in the yard with 200 other inmates and guards walking by. We don’t care what anybody thinks. It’s all about what’s good for the dogs. We owe them. They did what nothing or nobody could—they took away our selfishness.” The raisers fill their cells with squeak toys and chew bones as well as photographs of their pups past and present. Paintings of puppies and stenciled paw prints also adorn the concrete walls of the dank basement room that serves as Fishkill’s training center.

Veteran raiser Thomas Lonetto, 33, convicted a decade ago for robbery and attempted murder, says he learned more from giving up his first dog than taking care of it. “I felt what my mother must have felt on the day I was sentenced, when she stood next to the 24-year-old son she loved, who was going away for a very long time,” he says. “It’s called empathy. I didn’t know it existed in me until that moment.”

The women at Bedford Hills express similar sentiments. “We’re not raising these dogs, we’re in partnership with them and with each other,” says 24-year-old Nora Moran, who is serving 10 to 20 years for assault and armed robbery. “The love we get and the love we give reaches society before we get there, in the form of these wonderful working dogs.”

Yet the program is hardly a panacea. Some raisers quit because they can’t get along with the group, or won’t obey Stoga’s orders (one inmate told her she was a “martinet”). Others are kicked out for violating prison rules. Nor has the program so far made any perceptible dent in a recidivism rate that sees two out of three inmates rearrested within three years of their release.

It is almost two in the afternoon. Willi Richards has handed out cookies and photographs of Victoria—on the lap of a department store Santa, wearing a flouncy hat at Easter— and he has let Mercedes Smith reconnect with her “good, good girl.” He stood by, a big smile on his face, as the women took turns being blindfolded and led by Victoria around an obstacle course of strategically placed chairs. “It’s not easy being blind, is it?” Richards said to the group. Now, as he takes Victoria’s handle and leash and heads down the hill to go home, he stops and turns back toward the women. “Before Victoria, I was a prisoner in my own house,” he says. “You gave me my freedom.”

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