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Bars of morning light hit my cell wall while I dreamt of calm seas. As I sawed the rope mooring my boat to the pier, I heard a distant yelp. The last strand snapped, and I pushed away from the dock, accidentally knocking my pillow from the bunk. I had been dreaming.

I heard more barking.

I rolled over to the window, and watched as a few hounds and pit bulls pulled their trainers along the front of Delta Dorm, which houses Everglades Dog Program (EDP), run by Magic City K9, a nonprofit which saves dogs from shelters and assigns guys here as trainers and companions for each dog. The dogs even share a cell with their trainers. 

I took a deep breath and hopped off my rack. The dorms aren’t climate controlled. But that didn’t matter today with the fresh Miami air, mild humidity and temperature of 73 degrees. Outside, thick yellow stripes and layers of street paint marked the left and right side of the pavement. Instead of heading to my intended destination, I stopped instead at Delta Dorm, where there was already a traffic jam.

At the dog dorm, I said hello to Gordon, a Rottweiler hound; Candy, a Labrador hound; Bagel, a Bullmastiff pitt; Lily, a blended Labrador; and Ava, a Labrador terrier. Oh, and I almost forgot two Alaskan Husky Collie puppies bouncing in circles around bona fide tough guys. 

In actuality, these guys are as soft as warm butter, at least around the dogs. Even the guards aren’t immune to puppy love. With pursed lips, one of  them volunteered to escort a fuzzy pup out of the gate. I wish he’d be that kind to me.  

Mudd, a chocolate red-nosed pit, was assigned to a guy named Scott. A clueless driver had just about done Mudd in, but Magic City K9 saved him from the lethal injection list and nursed him back to health.Turner loved Mudd, who mastered 35 commands. My favorite among these was “hugs and kisses.”

But it wouldn’t always be this way. 

As the COVID-19 virus exercised its squatters’ rights, the first batch of guys, including me, were quarantined in concrete and steel cells. The dog program disappeared, the trainers disbanded, and for us, it became prison again. No programs. No projects. No peace. Just prison. 

Months later, the vaccines came, and we got our first Moderna shot.

Programs and classes started and stopped a little here and there. More yard. More canteen. More game room time. And the return of the dogs. Wagging tails, waving paws, and happy prisoners, they looked about the same. It was pretty much what you‘d expect after a pandemic. 

I interviewed Tommy, a program leader in The Ambassador Project, a leadership program for the incarcerated. He works with EDP as well. 

Q: What are your thoughts about EDP?

It’s the irony of redemption. Men are thrown away with the keys and forgotten here. They rehabilitate throw away, abused, and left for dead dogs.

Q: How do the other programs compare?

They feel the dog program gets all the attention, but I believe it’s a tangible way to give back to our communities. The EDP is what every program should be. I’ve seen the men who train the dogs become better men because of it.

Q: You want the dog program to integrate with TAP. Why?

I think there should be solidarity between programs, and this is one way to do it. EDP brings dogs to the dorm and lets the men love them. It‘s therapeutic. If a really good day happens in TAP or a really bad one, the dogs help us get vulnerable. And our walls tumble. Maybe in those moments we feel as if we‘re not in prison.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

J.H. is a writer incarcerated in Florida. His high school literature teacher published his first poem in a journal for Seminole County. Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Susanna, an instructor for Exchange for Change's creative writing course, encouraged him to pickup writing again. Now in his 50s, he finds the possibility of realizing his dream to be a writer uplifting. He has asked that his full name be withheld.