The non-profit program enables inmates in Pennsylvania and Maryland to train prospective service dogs for 12-18 months inside the prison before the pups move on to formal training at the Canine Partners for Life headquarters. After graduating from the two-year program the service dogs go on to assist the handicapped or mentally disabled. Over the course of their 26-year existence Canine Partners for Life has placed over 650 service dogs in 45 states across America.The process begins in Cochranville, PA where the CPL team breeds, trains, and cares for dozens of service dogs a year. At 8-weeks old the new pups are transferred to their respective prison facilities around Pennsylvania (eight participating prisons) and Maryland (two participating prison). The group at SCI Greene meets once every two weeks inside the visitors’ room to train and evaluate the dogs. Volunteers and CPL trainers arrive first. Erica, the head trainer, goes over the day’s objectives as the morning light illuminates the beautifully crafted mural painted on the overhead wall. It was completed in March of 2017, and took the inmates over seven months to create.
It is 9:00am and the inmates begin entering the room. They greet the volunteers warmly and begin prepping their dogs for training. Erica calls everyone to attention and begins the session with some simple walking exercises. Four teams of two stands up and begin leading their dogs through a variety of stations set up around the room.
Each dog is assigned to a pair of inmates responsible for its training and care. One is the primary handler while the other is the secondary handler. Dogs live in the inmates’ cell, and accompany them throughout every part of their day. This includes going to work, using the bathroom, eating, sleeping, and anything in between. The dogs are impeccably trained, reacting instantly to commands given by their handlers. Treats were placed on the floor to tempt them out of position. No one budges, and the exercise concludes with zero mistakes. Expressions of pride and approval can be seen upon the inmate’s faces. It is clear they take their work seriously. The inmates are given permission to participate in the program based on good behavior. The men involved have been convicted of crimes ranging from grand theft to murder and manslaughter. At first the program did not have enough volunteer inmates to operate. “They didn’t have enough people, and just needed me on paper,” Paul, Cassidy’s handler, explained. “I was hesitant at first, but agreed. Then I saw what the dogs would be doing. That won me over. Never thought I would like it like I do now.” Each morning the dogs practice commands with their handlers and are expected to pass monthly progress evaluations during training sessions with CPL staff and local volunteers. That day, Nike, an 4-month old black lab, was up for her 4-month evaluation. “We’re ready,” Ralph, Nike’s handler, said confidently. “She’s really smart. I’m not worried.”
Erica instructs the rest of the group to practice commands as Nike and her handlers prepare. After a few moments, Ralph walks to the center of the floor with Nike, and the evaluation begins. Glancing down at her clipboard, Erica runs through a list of commands including proper walking, obedience, nail cutting, and grooming. Nike maneuvers through each task with ease; her handlers Ralph and Stephen showering her in praises as Erica checks off the last box on her evaluation. This is an important step toward graduation.
Erica announces Nike’s seamless performance to an applause from the rest of the inmates. Glancing at the clock, Erica ensures the dogs are given 20 minutes to play outside in the yard.
As the pups emerge into the bright open air you can see the excitement in their step despite their best efforts to hide it. The dogs are taught that their harnesses dictate the difference between work mode and play mode. Harness on means work. Harness off means play. The inmates begin to unfasten the harnesses, and before they even have a chance to hit the ground, the dogs are off. Bounding, leaping, barking, and running all over the walled-in yard. It was quite the sight to see. When training concludes at 10:30am, the inmates are sent back to their respective prison blocks. Ralph and Stephen live in Block K with Nike. The two men ambled back across the large barbed-wire lined quad, occasionally stopping to let Nike sniff something.
Arriving at their cell, Nike has one last task to complete before moving on to her next stage of training. She must get inside her crate and stay there without making a sound for two full minutes. Ralph walks Nike to her crate and we all leave the room as Erica starts her watch. 30 seconds. Silence. One minute. Not a sound. One minute 30 seconds. Still nothing. Two minutes. Nike is home free. Ralph walks over to the cage, rewarding her with a pat on the head.
Since it’s integration into the prison system three years ago, CPL has yielded nothing but positive results. Tina Staley, the Program Manager at SCI Greene, commented on the program’s long-term effects: “The Canine Partner’s for Life Program has had a tremendous impact on both the inmates and staff at this facility,” Tina said. “The program has not only changed the handlers who train the dogs, it has changed the entire atmosphere of the institution.”
“The presence of the dogs goes far beyond the day to day training; they have brought a sense of purpose and connection. We believe CPL and other similar programs will play a big part in the future of corrections.” Tina Staley – SCI Greene Program Manager.
After dogs complete their training in the prison, they are transferred back to the CPL headquarters in Cochranville, PA. There they are trained for another 8-12 months before being assigned to their future owner. Currently there is a one to three year waiting list for a CPL service dog. This list is not first-come-first-serve, but rather based on the needs of the applicants. The match process is a complicated one, complete with personality tests, extensive evaluations, and several in-person meetings.
Canine Partners for Life is a non-profit organization that charges nothing for their services. Each of their dogs cost an estimated $30,000 to fully train and comes with lifetime support. After matching you with a service dog, they request a donation of $1-$3,000, or less than 10% of their investment. CPL receives no federal funding and acquires their 1.8 million dollar yearly budget through private donations. Their new kennels can hold around 28-30 dogs, but the prisons play an integral role in training the newborn pups during their adolescent months.
“The program is a win-win-win for everyone involved,” said Jennifer Swank, the CPL Prison Program Coordinator. It benefits CPL by giving us well trained puppies, benefits the puppies’ future recipients, and benefits the correctional institution as a whole.”
The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2012 study showed that our prison population has grown by over 700% in the past four decades, and cost taxpayers an estimated $39 billion. This continual growth makes public outreach programs like CPL more important than ever. Canine Partners for Life is a shining example of prison reform benefitting the community and helps to display the immense potential of our incarcerated population.
About the author:
Mike Schwarz is a photojournalist based out of Pittsburgh, PA. He graduated from Boston University in 2016 with a degree in journalism and international relations. He has been published by the Associated Press, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Viewfind.