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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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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.

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