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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

PAWS With a Cause Partners with Muskegon Prisoners

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

One cold winter morning on December 17, 2015 representatives from PAWS With a Cause entered the gates of the Muskegon Correctional Facility (MCF) accompanied by 18 dogs eager to explore their new temporary homes.

The PAWS program teaches prisoners how to train dogs to establish foundation behaviors and learn commands. According to their mission statement, PAWS "enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities through custom-trained Assistance Dogs."

Upon completion of their training the canines go on to become Service, Hearing, Seizure Response or Service Dogs for Children with Autism. Applicants request Seizure Response Dogs 40% of the time.

Dogs enrolled in the PAWS program are assigned two prisoner dog handlers. Though many prisoners seek to become dog handlers most will not be selected because of the program's limited size capacity.

Criteria which evaluates program candidates prevents participation in the program for prisoners who have an assaultive record, history of animal cruelty, or have received specific prohibited misconduct reports. Prisoners who receive misconduct reports once in the program are also subject to termination.

PAWS dog handlers learn the skills they need to train the dogs through instructional videos. Program dog trainers also visit the prison weekly to provide lessons and answer questions and concerns handlers may have.

Unbeknownst to most, dog handlers sleep in the same cell with the dogs they train. They become their companions for four months and are tasked with the responsibility of feeding, bathing, and cleaning up after the dogs.

The cells prisoners share the dog with are the size of an average home bathroom. Most dog handlers spend much of their time with their dogs outside of the cell walking them around the prison yard, socializing them, and teaching them the program curriculum.

According to Donald Gimotty, being selected as one of the dog handlers is "one of the most remarkable blessings" in his life.

"It gives me a great sense of pride to provide specialized training to dogs that can helps people," said Gimotty. "Each time that happens part of me leaves prison to provide service to others. That's pretty special in my world." 

The atmosphere at the facility has improved significantly since the arrival of the PAWS program. Violence has dissipated and the dogs have had a calming effect at the prison, a fact echoed in evidence-based research.

Dogs in the PAWS program have become a conversation piece between both prisoners and staff. They have increased communication between people of various races and religions and enriched the concept of community. Additionally, they have taught the valuable lesson that building bridges, not walls, unites humanity.

Prisoners who had dogs as pets when they were in society either as adults or growing up as children feel good seeing the dogs daily. The contact offers them the opportunity to fill the void of limited experiences in prison by reconnecting with some semblance of normalcy. 

Any time prisoners are able to reconnect with normal things people experience in society it affords them the chance to enjoy those few precious moments that connect them to the idea of freedom in some small way.

One prisoner in the PAWS program added, "Because the dogs are not part of the 'tough prison' image they [the dogs] actually undermine that mythos and help foster a more 'humane' energy. Ironic, considering they are animals, isn't it?"

As a reflection of the value PAWS dog handlers place on the program, when I asked this prisoner if I could name him for this writing he stated, "Just make me anonymous. I want your writing to be about the program, not about me."

Through the PAWS program prisoners learn about responsibility and receive daily lessons about caring and compassion. They also learn the value of developing patience, tolerance, and caring for others.

One staff member stated, "I wish there was more space available at MCF for the PAWS program. It has had a positive impact on everyone involved. Expanding the program to maximize its benefits would be awesome."

PAWS With a Cause is yet another valuable program that reflects the wisdom of MCF Warden Sherry Burt. Her stewardship continues to blossom with vibrant ideas that effectuate positive change at MCF.

As a progressive pioneer of innovative ways to promote public safety, Warden Burt continues to transform prisoner lives through her tireless efforts of promoting prisoner programming that helps prevent the stigma of "prison" from defining people's lives.

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