LAWTON, Okla. (TNN) - A new program at the Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility is helping shelter dogs by allowing inmates to give them 24/7 care while training them.
A select group of inmates is able to own dogs inside the prison, caring for them all day, every day. Once a week, a dog trainer comes to the prison to work with the dogs and their new owners, giving them instructions on what to teach the dogs the following week, and judging their progress so far.
"It’s changed the whole atmosphere in the whole pod. Everybody loves the dogs, they bring joy to everybody,” said inmate Jarred Priest.
In November, the Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility partnered with the animal shelter Rainbow Bridge Can Wait on a very ambitious program. The idea behind it was to give shelter dogs the homes and training they desperately need.
"They are dropped off animals. They are abandoned animals and now they have somebody who loves them, who takes care of them, who trains them,” said Matthias Zehfuss, dog trainer with Zehfuss K-9 Training Center.
The animals get the love and training they need, but they’re not the only ones that benefit.
"The inmates gain from it because they learn self-respect and self-esteem has risen tremendously. They feel like they have worth by doing this so it’s a really positive program to have,” said Dean Caldwell, assistant facility administrator over programs for Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility.
The inmates are responsible for caring for the dogs all day, which Zehfuss said actually makes them more easily trained.
"People normally, if I tell them to practice, most people really don’t practice all the time. But here, because they have something special, they practice and listen to every word I say,” Zehfuss said.
The practice isn’t just helping the animals.
"We’re seeing really positive on the inmate side of it,” Caldwell said.
"Each week I come here I can see a difference in the inmates and I can also see a difference in the dogs,” Zehfuss said.
There are several requirements the inmates must meet to earn this opportunity. They must apply and be screened by a three-person committee. To even be considered they must have no prior misconduct, the highest earned credit level possible and good evaluations from the staff. Then if they pass all of that, they’ll be interviewed to see if they’re a good fit. So far, inmates have been jumping at the opportunity.
"I have a stack of 200 applications right now,” Caldwell said.
One of those applications was filed by Jarred Priest, one of the first inmates selected for the program.
"It’s awesome. It takes me back to the real world,” Priest said
Priest is one of just a handful of inmates who has been selected so far, but he said dogs are impacting far more people than just them.
"It can cut down on the violence and everything. This is a stress reliever. People come to my cell daily just wanting to pet the dog. They say that’s a real stress reliever man we appreciate it, I say anytime, anytime,” Priest said.
Each dog spends eight weeks in the program, learning all the basics like sit, heel and lie down. They’re also learning to be house broken and how to be loved, skills that Zehfuss says make the dogs much more adoptable. Once they complete the program, they’ll leave the inmates and be put up for adoption to hopefully find a forever home.
"It is hard but at the same time it’s rewarding because we know they’re going to a better place,” Priest said.
While the dogs will come and go from the prison, Zehfuss said they’ll certainly leave a lasting impression on every inmate who encountered them.
"I think it gives them a self-worth. A self-esteem. I hope when they get out, they won’t forget this. I know they’ll never forget this,” Zehfuss said.
The dogs are kept inside a cell with two trainers, one primary and one secondary. At the end of the eight-week program, those trainers will get a new dog and switch roles. Then, eight weeks later those trainers will step away from the role and serve as mentors to another group of inmates who take over the training duties. The idea is for the number of dogs and inmates in the program to continue to grow, getting more pets adopted and potentially helping inmates get jobs as dog trainers once they're released.
This new program goes along with a recent name change at the prison. Up until recently, the prison was simply called the Lawton Correctional Facility. They changed the name to the Lawton Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility as they begin to change how the prison operates, with Caldwell saying they are starting up many more rehabilitation focused programs like this one in the future.