Charlene Mess was having a bad dream. At least, she was acting like she was.
As she rocked back and forth, screaming and moaning, her dog, Champ, shot his head up and leapt into action. He pulled off Mess’ sheets and flicked on the room’s lights with his wet nose. It took him a few tries, but when he finally switched it on, there was thunderous applause.
Champ was demonstrating his latest trick in front of a room of dog trainers, who also happen to be inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in New York, about an hour north of Manhattan.
“Good boy!” Mess said, jumping up from her makeshift bed, which in reality was a long table, as she fed Champ treats from a kibble pouch that she had belted over her prison uniform.
The flipping-on-the-light trick was just one of many that Champ showed off during a recent class at Bedford Hills, where he and Mess participate in Puppies Behind Bars (PBB). The New York–based nonprofit, which operates in six correctional facilities and works with about 140 prisoners, trains inmates to raise service dogs for wounded veterans and first-responders suffering from trauma-related disorders. They also raise and train explosive-detection canines (EDCs) for law enforcement.
The benefits of the program are circular: Not only do the dogs go on to serve those who need help, they also positively impact the inmates who raise them from 8-week-old puppies, providing them with a sense of purpose and redemption. According to PBB, many of the puppy-raisers go on to work professionally as dog trainers and groomers after they’re paroled.
“Craig makes me feel whole,” says Dunasha Payne, fighting back tears as she speaks about her 2-year-old black lab, which is expected to graduate from PPB and start life as a service dog within the next few weeks. “And I love him so much, and it’s like, I tried my best with my dog, and I put all my personal feeling aside to raise him to the fullest potential that I could. But they make you feel like you’re worth something, and they make you [feel] that you have a purpose in life, and that you’re not just a prisoner, that you’re not just here to do some time.”
A NEED FOR SUPPORT
In 1997, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility became the first prison in New York to implement Puppies Behind Bars. The program, which is funded through outside donations, initially focused on raising and training seeing-eye dogs. But then came 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in the Middle East.
“Being a New Yorker, living in New York, being there on September 11th, I’ve always thought that those first responders were thanked and thanked and thanked initially, and then they kind of weren’t,” says PPB founder and president Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who once worked on a commission to find employment for low-income New Yorkers under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “They kind of blended into the background, [but they] had a lot of health issues.”
It was at that point that Stoga widened PPB’s mission to include the training and deployment of explosive-detection canines and, later, service dogs for traumatized first responders and wounded veterans.
“With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, I kept thinking, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’” she says. “The answer was that I can help these [inmates] raise service dogs that we can donate to wounded war veterans.”
Along with a handful of other instructors, including former inmates who have gone on to work for PPB, Stoga teaches prisoners how to raise service dogs. She also conducts several group training sessions a year, in which veterans are paired with dogs and learn from the inmate-trainers how to work with them. The program puts 2-month-old puppies, most of which are labrador retrievers, under the watchful eyes of inmates. These devoted doggy caretakers live, sleep and work with the pooches 24/7 until they’ve mastered an industry-standard 85 commands, like opening doors for wheelchair users, plus five more that specifically help sufferers of PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury).
Most dogs are able to complete the training program in 12 to 24 months. To date, PBB has put more than 250 to use as guide, service, therapy and companion dogs, plus another 437 have gone on to work with law enforcement as bomb-sniffing dogs.
Though the Department of Correction does not track recidivism rates of parolees who have participated in PBB, a DOC spokesperson says it measures success in the soft skills gained by inmates who care for the dogs.
“Part of [DOC’s] mission is to prepare individuals for their transition back to the community,” the spokesperson says. “[Puppies Behind Bars] incentivizes good behavior in the facility, as well as giving individuals the opportunity to do something positive for someone else, while learning patience, pride and accomplishment — all of which will benefit them when they reenter society.”
‘WE MANUFACTURE BEST FRIENDS’
The walk through Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — the only maximum-security prison for women in the state — is brimming with reminders of exactly where you are. There may be a few pretty flowers here and there, sure, but it’s all against a backdrop of barbed wire and high fences.
“I’ve been here for years,” says a prison security guard. “And let me tell you, this is like no other program. It really works. They are the most well-behaved inmates.”
It’s 8:30 in the morning, and Payne is on a turfed field playing fetch with her dog, Craig.
Payne has changed her life around since entering prison in 2013. Originally from Queens, she was well-known in local tabloids as “hell on wheels” after mowing down and killing her ex-boyfriend in a jealous rage.
She says that everything is different now. She has been part of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, an in-prison arts program that has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism rates, and is now a trainer with Puppies Behind Bars, which — according to the organization’s mission statement — aims to help those living in prison learn to sacrifice for a bigger cause. Another perk is that inmates who take part in the program can shave six months off their sentence.
“I’ve had Craig since he was 8 weeks old. I also have a child at home who is 8 years old, and I left her when she was 3,” says Payne. “And not to compare the two, but for me, I really got my confidence in proving to [the PBB staff] that I can indeed take care of a dog. I felt that my purpose was way more important than just me being a regular average inmate.”
Other inmates say the program has fostered in them a passion for helping others. When a first responder was paired with the dog Alice Trappler had raised, she saw it as an opportunity to help a man fighting deep depression.
“He shared with us that he felt broken. He didn’t feel at all like he was worthwhile. And he had tried to commit suicide, which to me is heartbreaking,” says Trappler, who’s serving a 25-year-to-life sentence. “My comment to him was that his dog did not think he was broken. She thought he was great, and she thought he was the best thing ever.
“We manufacture best friends, because they’re infallible and they love you no matter what.”