By Eric Wilson-Edge
What is prison? Is it a place where bad people go to be punished? Is it cable television and steak dinner? Is it a symbol of a broken legal system which disproportionately targets minorities and the poor? Or can it be something different? Can a prison be a correctional institution where the goal is to change behavior and produce a better citizen?
The folks with the Prison Pet Partnership certainly think so. The program has been a mainstay at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor since 1981.Pet Partnership is the first of its kind and serves as a model for prisons around the world.
Inside the prison is a boarding and grooming facility which is largely staffed by inmates. “A lot of these women will be out someday,” says the program’s Executive Director, Beth Rivard. “If there’s no opportunity for growth then they have nothing and you’ll be locking them back up again.”
In the last five years, 10 women have completed the program and have been released. Eight of those women are currently working in the pet care industry. The field is fast growing and skilled workers are in demand. “Employers will ask us if we have anyone getting out soon,” says Rachel Keeler. Keeler is the Vocational Education Program Manager for Prison Pet Partnership.
If not for the concertina wire and the corrections officers this would seem like any other business. The Program Assistant, Mollyrose Sommer, takes me on a tour of the grounds. There are kennels with barking dogs. Attached to each is a report card. Every dog that comes into the facility is monitored for changes in eating or behavior. Outside, an offender plays catch with what looks like a German Shepard.
Getting into the program isn’t easy. Applicants must first pass a test. They must also be pursuing their GED or diploma. Anyone with a history of abuse against the disabled, elderly, children and animals cannot participate. Also, an offender must not have committed a major infraction for a year and a minor infraction for 90 days. Participants are expected to show up to work on time and be on their best behavior.
Teresa Gaethe-Leonard is busy working on Oreo. Oreo is a Shih Tzu. Gaethe-Leonard expertly glides a pair of clippers across the dog’s body. “Definitely gives you a positive thing to focus on,” says Gaethe-Leonard. “It’s a normal thing to do in an un-normal situation.”
Gaethe-Leonard hopes to work as a trainer or groomer when she finishes serving her sentence. She credits the program with helping change her outlook on life. “When I first arrived I was pretty shutdown. I put my head down and didn’t talk,” says Gaethe-Leonard. “Now I’m completely different, I’m more outgoing.”
Kindness and prison are words not normally associated with each other. Prison is often portrayed as a brutal, colorless place. I imagine there is truth in this presentation. However, it’s hard to square that image with the one in front of me. An offender sits in a wheelchair gently giving commands to an over eager dog named Wilson. Wilson is part of the service dog training program.
Prison Pet Partnership trains 3-4 dogs a year to be used as service animals for people with disabilities. The process takes eight months to complete and most dogs don’t finish. Those that don’t are put up for adoption.
Wilson already knows at least 20 different commands. The offender working with him is patient and loving. “Dogs are unconditional – they don’t care,” says Sommer. “This is a way to start taking down walls, to start to heal, trust and bond.”
So what is a prison? Sure, it’s cells, fences, wire and confinement, but the role of a prison is something entirely different. The offenders here are being punished. The only open space is directly overhead. The people who run Prison Pet Partnership understand this idea. The goal isn’t to continually punish but to continually improve.