CHARLESTON — Derek Holmes takes his role as dog handler seriously. The Southeast Correctional Center offender recently purchased the "Dog Bible."
The canine reference book aids Holmes and his cellmate and fellow dog handler Ricky Kidd in adjusting the training of their chihuahua mix, Lil' Bill, to meet the needs of the dog training program, Puppies for Parole.
In September, Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston became the ninth prison in Missouri to implement the program that started on Feb. 1, 2010. It offers selected offenders an opportunity to train dogs rescued from animal shelters and animal advocate groups. Offenders learn skills that assist in their rehabilitation, and their work ultimately produces dogs that are more adoptable.
"I think it's so important when the dogs go into a home, and they are already equipped with basic fundamentals," Kidd said.
Using a 10-point system, all dogs are trained in basic obedience and tested for the Canine Good Citizen Award. The dogs are with the offenders for a minimum of eight weeks. Southeast Correctional Center is currently on its second group of dogs being trained by offenders.
"Achieving some of these results takes time — time many people don't have," Holmes said.
But Holmes, Kidd and other offenders incarcerated in Missouri's correctional centers do have the time.
Today there are 12 prisons implementing the program, and George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said he expects two more in the next couple months, for a total of 14 of the state's 20 prisons.
"We're about to adopt out our 200th dog, which is just amazing ..." Lombardi said.
The program has fostered good relationships with the communities, Lombardi said.
"It has been a benefit to the counties and the areas that instead of euthanizing dogs we're able to adopt out these really good pets and made a lot of difference," said Lombardi, who noted the programs are being implemented without the use of tax dollars.
Lombardi said he hopes to eventually engage universities to gauge the impact of the program in terms of inmate behavior through a cultural assessment of some sort.
"I knew dogs could have an impact positively on the atmosphere and culture of the prison — and it did. The positive feeling has migrated from the handlers to the dormitory to the entire prison," Lombardi said.
It has also taught many inmates to have compassion, Lombardi said.
"That is a characteristic many of them miss and don't have. It may be due to their upbringing, and it's taboo to show affection and mention it in prisons, but it is not to a dog, and they can give back that unconditional love to a dog," Lombardi said.
The impact is being felt statewide, the director said.
The vast majority of dogs have been adopted by staff at the prisons; however, some dogs have been adopted by the Department of Mental Health and Veterans Administration as well as for use with deaf individuals and autistic children.
"(Most) children of autism cannot imitate humans, but they can imitate dogs, and this helps with them enormously," Lombardi said.
Lombardi said the Department of Corrections is also hoping to work with soldiers.
Kidd said there are several components of the program he finds rewarding, but one he really appreciates is the responsibility associated with caring for the dog.
"When we get incarcerated, a lot of our responsibility is wiped away, and this allows a platform for us to re-familiarize with it by being responsible for the dog," Kidd said.
The dogs also seem to be bringing the prison community together by creating a common bond for both the staff and offenders.
"It's excellent for offenders as a whole. Everybody brings out their softer side," Holmes said.
Holmes recalled another example of how he's seen firsthand the positive impact the dogs have made in the prison community.
"The other day I had Lil' Bill on one of the rec yards," Holmes said. "And a group of guys came up to pet him, and one of them said: 'Man, I ain't touched a dog in years.'"
Case worker Jay Gorhaml said he sees only positives in the program, too.
"I think it gives these guys (who are incarcerated) a lot to strive for," Gorhaml said. "It gives them hope and inspiration."