Prisoners give back, train puppies to guide blind, deaf

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

“Stay for 10 seconds.”“Treat!”

“Take one step forward. Turn to face the puppy, and give a treat.”

“Stand toe to toe with the puppy for 15 seconds.”

“Return to heel and treat!”

Five puppies stood in a line, obeying the commands of men in navy jumpsuits stamped with six digits on the back. The puppies sat, stayed and listened — except for one, a 12-week-old black Labrador, Nico.

His peers lied still on their stomachs on the gym floor. He sat on his butt, wagging his tail, waiting for a treat. Mario Carines cut the puppy some slack.

“He did pretty well,” said Carines, after an August training session. “We just got him a couple weeks ago. He already sits!”

Nico is one of 11 puppies in the Leader Dogs for the Blind Prison Puppies program, trained by 23 inmates at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven. At the 1,416-person Level I, II and IV all-male prison, it’s common to see inmates toting puppies on leashes through the grounds, eating in the Chow Hall with a lab or golden retriever by their side and passing time with a four-legged cellmate, who takes up a share of the 8-foot-by-11-foot space.

“He’s with us 24/7,” said Carines, who’s raising Nico with teammate James Fuson. Carines agreed to take Nico outside from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. if he has “business” to do. But Carines, who has a life sentence for first-degree murder, doesn’t mind.

“The puppy is a blessing,” he said, explaining that since the dogs arrived last summer, the morale of both the inmates and staff has improved.

“The environment is, by nature, oppressive, so seeing animals around when the program first began, guys couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen a dog in 22 years,” he said. “He brings a lot of joy.”

Inmate James Fuson carries his assigned leader dog Nico at an exercise pen at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven. The prison is one of seven in Michigan with the Prison Puppies training program.

Puppies with a purpose

Prison Puppies started in 2002 at North Central Correctional Facility in Iowa. Leader Dog coordinators noticed a difference in the success rate. Up to 60 percent of puppies raised in prisons become leader dogs, assisting the blind or deaf; the graduation rate of puppies outside prisons is about 45 percent.

“Many of our dogs raised in correctional facilities go on to not only graduate, but have long-term successful working careers as guide dogs,” said Melissa Spooner, Prison Puppies coordinator for Leader Dogs for the Blind, based in Rochester Hills.

The program has since expanded to 10 facilities in four states: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, stretching from Jackson to Baraga in the Upper Peninsula. Prison Puppies is a “win-win-win,” Spooner said, since it benefits the recipient, Leader Dog and 108 inmates in the voluntary year-long program. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found only 17 percent of inmates in Prison Puppies return to prison after being released. The national recidivism rate is about 50 percent.

Inmates go through an interview process. And anyone with a history of animal abuse is ineligible.

When Prison Puppies launched in Macomb, 110 inmates applied for 15 positions. Warden Randall Haas said the biggest challenge is limiting the number of dogs. Once, a prisoner requested that every inmate receive a leader dog, but that would present logistical problems.

“If a dog has to go potty at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Haas said, “the officers assigned to that housing unit have to walk out with the prisoner and his dog (too).”

The program also teaches the inmates to work together, said Vanessa Hinojosa, who is a records office supervisor and Leader Dog coordinator at the Macomb Correctional Facility. “They don’t know each other from here nor there,” she says, “but it’s taught them how to be team-oriented.”

Frank Sgambati, assistant resident supervisor and Leader Dog liaison who’s worked at the Macomb Correctional Facility since 1992, didn’t think the puppies would change the inmates’ behaviors.

“I was wrong,” he admitted. “The guys’ attitudes in here are a lot calmer, and as a compound, you find this has brought some people together. ”

Shannon Holmes works with his assigned leader dog Faith in the multipurpose facility at the Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven on Wednesday August 17, 2016 (Max Ortiz/ The Detroit News)2016

Four-legged furry cellmate

Ronald Martin barely got Jagger through the door, with the warning “Leader Dog cell do not pound,” when the 10-month-old golden escaped. He scurried down the hallway, looking for a puppy friend that lived in the corner cell and just graduated.

“He thinks he’s still down there,” Sgambati laughed, as Martin chased after him.

Martin and Robert Richards have raised Jagger since January. Back then, he was just “a little guy.” Now? “He takes up his fair share of space,” Richards chuckled. “He likes to lay around in the middle of the floor.”

Adding a dog and crate in the unit is no small gesture. “They’re volunteering to have somebody else move into their room — and take care of it,” Sgambati said.

Richards, who had labs and dobermans before sentenced up to 20 years for home invasion and assault with intent to murder, said Jagger can be stubborn.

“He knows all his commands, but sometimes he just don’t want to listen to them,” he said. “He’s like a teenager. You tell him to sit, and he just looks at you like, ‘No.’”

Diesel, who was trained in a prison program in Michigan, helps Gary Paschall, who’s visually impaired, in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

‘All love and positive reinforcement’

By the end of a two-hour training, 11 puppies were conked out on the floor, as their raisers played a trivia game with puppy counselor Vijay Joshi. The prize: bacon treats. (The cost of all treats, food and medical care is covered by Leader Dog.)

Joshi, who visits each month, said the difficult part is mimicking real scenarios — eating at a restaurant, grocery shopping, airport travel — in the prison. Today’s exercise simulated streets, where puppies weaved between chairs and other pups as obstacles. When they listen, they’re rewarded with kibble.

“The training is not punitive in any form. It is all love and positive reinforcement,” Carines said. “You don’t need to even yell at the puppy.”

Leader Dog trains about 500 dogs a year. Not all graduate, like Carines’ first puppy, Comet. “He wanted to play more than he wanted to work,” Carines said.

Joshi just tells the inmates to “make their puppy the best their puppy can be. That’s all they can do,” she said. “Then it’s all on the puppy.”

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Michigan facilities with Prison Puppies

■ Baraga Correctional Facility in Baraga

■ Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia

■ Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia

■ G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson

■ Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe

■ Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee

■ Macomb Correctional Facility in New Haven