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Jackson — The Jackson prison program is shaping how inmates interact in a partnership with puppies that works both ways.

Ten puppies ranging from about 8 weeks to more than a year old are being trained by inmates at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility to move into the Leader Dogs for the Blind program. The facility has hosted the program for two years.

Cotton is one of seven prisons in Michigan that has the program. Prisons in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota also participate.

To be selected to volunteer for the program, inmates must have good institutional behavior, said Cotton Correctional Facility Counselor Dianna LaFraugh. Teams of two or three inmates work with the puppies, as they also have other jobs in the prison.

Lance Payton is working with the youngest puppy in the facility, 8-week-old Rocco, a yellow Labrador retriever. Payton said he enjoys being in the program.

“It helps me with my patience and being able to give back,” he said.

For Michael Ellis, the dogs offer a way for him and other inmates to relieve stress.

“We’ve all done some type of crime against the public,” he said. “To know what we are doing is investing the best of us into a dog, and then that dog is going to help someone that needs it.”

Prison Puppies coordinator Melissa Spooner trains with the inmates once a month. The inmates get together on their own each week to train the dogs together. Spooner said she enjoys working with the dogs and inmates.

“I probably would have never saw myself working in a correctional facility, but now going back I see where my traits are, loving to work with people, loving to work with dogs,” she said.

The program is proving successful. About 60 percent of the puppies raised in the correctional facilities go on to become Leader Dogs. The rate is 45 percent for those puppies raised outside of the prisons, said Rachelle Kniffen, director of communications and marketing for Leader Dogs. Hundreds of puppies have been raised in the prison system.

The program also has proven to lower recidivism rates for the inmates. The nationwide recidivism rate is about 50 percent. For participants in the Prison Puppies initiative, it’s 17 percent.

One hundred percent of the cost of care of the dogs, including food, supplies and medical expenses, are covered by the Leader Dogs for the Blind.

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