CRANSTON, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Edward Parent, 31, is doing 10 years at a medium-security prison here for killing a teenage girl while drunk driving. Chuck, who dozes in Parent’s cell, has committed no crime.
Chuck is a Labrador retriever, one of dozens of dogs being trained by prison inmates in a fast-growing program that provides “service dogs” to help U.S. veterans who have lost arms and legs or suffered brain injuries in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The Iraq war is going to change the whole demographics of the disabled population in this country,” said Sheila O‘Brien, executive director of the National Education for Assistance Dog Service (NEADS), which has trained dogs to assist people who are deaf or physically disabled since 1976.
O‘Brien tapped the nation’s swelling prison population for help since 1998, after some persuading by then Massachusetts prison commissioner Michael Maloney. She’s now convinced inmates can train dogs like professionals and wants to build on the program’s 10 prisons by adding three more.
“The prison program just about cuts the time needed for formal training in half.” she said.
The number of young, physically disabled U.S. veterans is surging. Already, at least 180,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have applied for disability benefits. O‘Brien reckons thousands are wounded badly enough to need assistance.
“We are gearing up to meet that need and one way we are doing that is by doubling the number of puppies that we are placing in prison,” she said.
Inmates stay with the dogs 24 hours a day for about a year, meeting with an expert trainer from NEADS once a week and even brushing their puppy’s teeth at night, before the dogs enter two months of more advanced training with professionals.
“Chuck is like my son. I treat him as that,” said Parent, who is serving a 10-year sentence at the John J. Moran medium security prison in Rhode Island for killing a teenage woman with his car while driving under the influence of alcohol.
“I protect him from other dogs. Other inmates. From himself. I take care of him just as I would my child. I feed him. I bathe him. Everything,” he said. “What it’s done for me is unbelievable.”
‘MAKES THE PLACE CALMER’
In one instruction session devoted to preparing dogs for dealing with strangers, a NEADS trainer donned a Halloween witch’s hat with flowing green hair and crouched as she snaked her way through the puppies. Some cowered. One urinated in fear. Calm puppies won crunchy snacks.
When not in training, the dogs can do something else -- lighten the prison’s mood.
“Some people who you perceive to be the hardest hardcore inmates melt when they see them,” said Jay Young, a convicted murderer who is serving 40 years. “When the less aggressive inmates see that, it makes the place calmer.”
Patting “Juanita”, a golden retriever, he adds, “For me, the companionship is the best thing. It changes things on a personal level for you. You learn a lot about yourself.”
The program, now confined to New England states, includes a perk coveted by inmates -- a single-bed cell.
But it’s not for all prisoners. Capt. Nelson Lefebvre, who oversees the dog training at Rhode Island’s prison, prohibits sex offenders and anyone known to have abused animals.
“It’s also a lot of responsibility and I don’t think everyone wants that,” he said. “I don’t have that many guys approaching me to do it.”
The first dog to graduate the program went to Roland Paquette, 28, who lost his feet in Afghanistan when a bomb exploded under his Humvee in Helmand province in 2005. Doctors amputated his legs above his knees. Today, in Texas, he relies on 2-year-old Rainbow, a Labrador retriever.
“I use her like I would a cane. She can actually support my weight when I‘m getting up off the ground. She retrieves things for me -- anything from a TV remote to my cell phone to keys that I dropped getting out of the car,” he said.
“I put some scent on the inside of my cell phone so she can find it throughout the house. I tell her to fetch the phone and she’ll go sniffing around looking for my cell phone.”
Training each dog costs between $17,000 and $19,000.
NEADS, which does not receive state or federal funding, typically charges disabled clients a fee of $9,500 and raises the rest through grants, fundraising and other sources. The fee is waived for soldiers.
Human rights advocates say the prison program represents the sort of rehabilitation lacking in most prisons at a time when the United States has 2.2 million people behind bars -- about a quarter of all the world’s prisoners.
“It’s good but one program is not going to solve the correctional nightmare in the United States that is the warehousing of prisoners who are largely idle,” said Kara Gotsch, advocacy director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.