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New Leash on Life

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

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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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