In a South Florida prison, dogs have given purpose to a group of men, many of whom are serving life sentences.
Thirteen dogs and their trainers have been living in an open dormitory with a number of other prisoners who have physical disabilities. I’m one of them.
The K9s are part of a program offered through the Florida Department of Corrections to train them to become service dogs that can assist people with disabilities, veterans with PTSD and children with autism. In return, the incarcerated trainers receive vocational certificates in dog grooming and training.
When I moved here in my wheelchair, I noticed immediately how clean and quiet the prison was. The usual noises and smells were missing — and so was the ever-present tension. Dogs and inmates seemed at ease. The men were mostly old, many older than 80. The dogs ranged from puppies to young adults.
I spoke to an 82-year-old neighbor named Ed, who was an experienced animal trainer and had worked in the program for over a decade. Later on, I would ask him how the training was done, and he told me, “First, I teach them to learn to learn.”
On this day, Ed jokingly warned me not to swipe any of the dog treats before he settled into his steel bunk, mumbling about an “old man’s nap.”
I used the time to get to know his dog. She was a puppy, lying on the concrete, tied to her metal cage between our bunks.
She had been staring at me for a while, chewing on a slimy red toy, her eyes shining with life, unlike so many human eyes here in prison. Three times, she pushed her toy toward me and out of her snout’s reach. I rolled closer to her and pushed the toy back across the concrete. Her tail wagged, a signal she wasn’t afraid of my wheelchair.
This was the most thrilling interaction I had experienced in years. It was clear that the dogs stole the show daily. No one had to tell me that they were the furry heartbeat of the program.
After playing with the puppy, and getting slobbered on the nose, the tone for the rest of my day had been set. Suddenly, I felt human again. I felt alright.
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.