Help­ing & heel­ing

Dog-train­ing pro­gram of­fers pos­i­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­mates

The Oklahoman - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT PAT­TER­SON Staff Writer mpat­ter­[email protected]­la­homan.com

Lacey Wal­lace and her dog, McAlis­ter, seem a nat­u­ral fit. Play­ing on the grass, the 28-year-old trainer demon­strates some of the ram­bunc­tious pooch’s tal­ents. If not for her or­ange jump­suit, the sur­round­ing walls and the ever-present gaze of prison guards, Wal­lace would look like any per­son hang­ing out with their dog on a bright spring morn­ing.

“I love hav­ing a dog in my room,” Wal­lace said. “It makes it feel a lit­tle less like prison and makes me feel a lit­tle more hu­man.”

Ma­bel Bas­sett Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter is a medi­um­se­cu­rity women’s prison that is home to about 1,000 in­mates, and about a dozen or so dogs of var­i­ous breeds. At the edge of the prison's mas­sive cen­tral yard is the newly opened Serelda Cody Dog Train­ing Fa­cil­ity.

The 3,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity is the cen­ter­piece of the Guardian An­gels pro­gram, a com­bined ef­fort of the De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions, Friends For Folks and Ca­reerTech. It aims to help pris­on­ers fill their time con­struc­tively, while also train­ing dogs for pri­vate own­ers and those in need of ser­vice an­i­mals.

And that’s how Wal­lace spends her days.

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break in between for lunch, she’s train­ing McAlis­ter who will even­tu­ally go back to its owner af­ter six weeks in the pro­gram, to sit, stay, lay down, heel and come, among other skills.

“I thought it was re­ally hard when I first started,” Wal­lace said. “I was ner­vous be­cause I didn’t think I would be able to train a dog. But once you get in and train your first it be­comes nat­u­ral.”

I love hav­ing a dog in my room. It makes it feel a lit­tle less like prison and makes me feel a lit­tle more hu­man.” Lacey Wal­lace

Wal­lace will have to wait to play with a dog of her own. In prison on drugs and weapons charges, she isn’t up for pa­role un­til late 2019. She has a lot of time on her hands.

“I wanted to change my life, to do some­thing with my time here and give some­thing back,” she said. “These dogs, some of them come in on their last legs, or they have a be­hav­ioral is­sue that might force their owner to give them up. We train them and they get a chance.”

The new fa­cil­ity has 10 in­door-out­door ken­nels, a groom­ing room and a class­room. Out­side is an ex­pan­sive ob­sta­cle course. Such pro­grams aren’t new.

De­spite bat­tling can­cer, Sis­ter Pauline Quinn had to be there when the fa­cil­ity at Ma­bel Bas­sett opened, trav­el­ing from Green Bay, Wis­con­sin, with her ser­vice dog, a golden re­triever named Pax. Quinn, 75, founded Path­ways to Hope in 1981 and in­tro­duced the first prison dog-train­ing pro­gram that same year in Wash­ing­ton.

Since then, she’s helped get pro­grams off the ground at dozens of pris­ons in the United States and South Amer­ica, even if the start was a bit rocky.

“With the first pro­gram the DOC was afraid the in­mates would train the dogs to at­tack the guards,” Quinn said. “But you can’t train a dog to at­tack un­less you ag­i­tate it. And if you’re ag­i­tat­ing it, every­one will know. It’s come a long way since then.”

Ok­la­homa is a per­fect place for pro­grams like the one at Ma­bel Bas­sett, Quinn said. The state's fe­male in­car­cer­a­tion rate leads the na­tion and is twice the na­tional av­er­age. While some might think prison should be made as dif­fi­cult as pos­si­ble, Quinn sees lit­tle value in that ap­proach.

“Ware­hous­ing with­out pur­pose is not a good prac­tice,” Quinn said. “That’s been proven over and over again. They have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions, but they also need to have the op­por­tu­nity to heal and this is one way to do that.”

An­nie the mas­cot

As in­mate Kim­berly Wen­thold plays with An­nie Bas­sett, the pro­gram’s of­fi­cial mas­cot dog, what Quinn is talk­ing about be­comes ob­vi­ous.

As the play­ful Ger­man shep­herd mix bounces up and down, bark­ing and run­ning in cir­cles, Wen­thold drops to the ground and tries to get her to calm down. She’s had An­nie for a year, and the dog will re­main at Ma­bel Bas­sett for the rest of her life.

“We use her a lot for demon­stra­tions,” Wen­thold said. “And she’s re­ally good at read­ing other dogs. She gets along with ev­ery­body.”

When An­nie came to Ma­bel Bas­sett she was in bad shape, not un­like her hu­man coun­ter­parts.

“She had su­tures in her ears and she was un­der­weight,” Wen­thold said.”

Wen­thold will have a chance to make her mark on the pro­gram for years to come. On Sept. 2, 2013, Wen­thold, un­der the in­flu­ence of Xanax, was driv­ing along State High­way 9 near Nor­man when she caused an ac­ci­dent that claimed the life of 8-yearold Cadence Gor­don.

The 33-year-old has 16 more years be­fore she’s el­i­gi­ble for pa­role on a 23-year sen­tence. Like An­nie, she came to prison at the low­est point of her life.

“The pro­gram teaches us all dogs have a sec­ond half, too,” she said.

When she ar­rived at Ma­bel Bas­sett three years ago, Wen­thold jumped at the chance to be around dogs.

“I said yes, but I had no idea what a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it would be for me,” she said.

An­nie is with her 24 hours a day.

“Not only did I help her get through so much, she’s helped me get through so much, too,” she said.

Worth the ef­fort

Nor­man vet­eri­nar­ian John Otto knows some peo­ple might op­pose pro­grams like Guardian An­gels. His own dad needed con­vinc­ing when Otto started vol­un­teer­ing at Lex­ing­ton Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter. He vis­ited the prison for two years be­fore telling his fa­ther.

“My dad was in the FBI for 30 years, and he was of the be­lief that you just lock them up and throw away the key,” Otto said. “But the re­al­ity is 96 per­cent of of­fend­ers get out. If we don’t change how they be­have they’ll do the same thing. They are hu­man be­ings and we have to treat them as hu­man be­ings.”

Otto helped raise more than $400,000 for the new fa­cil­ity. The con­struc­tion was harder than nor­mal, a five-year process filled with ob­sta­cles unimag­in­able in most con­struc­tion projects, he said.

“We had 14 brick­lay­ers who were re­jected from do­ing one of the walls,” Otto said. “Thomas Edi­son had 10,000 tries to cre­ate the light­bulb and I’m think­ing man, I don’t have 10,000 tries.”

The ef­fort was worth it. At the build­ing's May 29 ded­i­ca­tion, pris­on­ers ap­proached Otto one by one to thank him. Hugs and hand­shakes aren’t al­lowed, but the ap­pre­ci­a­tion was ob­vi­ous.

Quinn’s out-of-the-box idea that came to life in 1981 has sprouted 100 pro­grams in 38 states that pair pris­on­ers with dogs.

“This is a beau­ti­ful pro­gram be­cause an­i­mals give un­con­di­tional love,” Otto said. “They don’t judge. When you have that kind of thing go­ing on the in­mate be­comes com­fort­able and starts to talk, to open up. And then they start learn­ing. Through learn­ing their self-es­teem moves up.”

Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer Sgt. Danny Pianalto has seen how be­ing around that kind of un­con­di­tional love helps in­mates live for some­thing be­yond mark­ing off an­other day on the cal­en­dar.

“The ladies in the dog pro­gram are sec­ond to no­body when it comes to their ded­i­ca­tion and en­thu­si­asm,” he said.

Pro­grams like Guardian An­gels make Pianalto’s job a lit­tle eas­ier. Struc­ture is part of that, but the sense of ac­com­plish­ment is where he sees the big­gest ben­e­fit. He en­joys see­ing the smiles when a dog has suc­cess­fully com­pleted its train­ing.

“The in­mates get a sense of self-sat­is­fac­tion,” he said. "Their vi­sion for that dog has come to com­ple­tion.”

Heather Hood’s lat­est dog is 9-month-old poo­dle named Boomer. When Boomer is fin­ished with his train­ing he’ll go back to his owner who wanted the dog to learn bet­ter man­ners.

Hood's fa­vorite projects are help­ing dogs stay in their homes.

“My first dog was ‘Please help me fix my dog or I’ll have to get rid of them’,” she said. “I kept the dog for eight weeks and when it got home they ended up keep­ing it.”

It was one of her great­est ac­com­plish­ments.

“It makes me feel great know­ing I was able to help that dog, an­other be­ing,” she said. “I never in my life have been able to have that feel­ing. It was right up there with giv­ing birth to my kids.”

Hood wel­comes the reg­i­men­ta­tion of the pro­gram. She be­lieves it will help her get back on track when she’s fi­nally re­leased.

“These are qual­i­ties I lacked out there,” she said. “That’s one of the rea­sons I was in the life­style that I was in.” As Boomer comes up be­hind her, Hood turns her at­ten­tion to the curly haired dog, his big brown eyes star­ing up at her.

“I can come out of prison with more abil­ity to make it in the world and suc­ceed,” she said. “The pro­gram gives ev­ery one of us hope. You don’t feel like it’s the end of the road.”

This is a beau­ti­ful pro­gram be­cause an­i­mals give un­con­di­tional love. They don’t judge. When you have that kind of thing go­ing on the in­mate be­comes com­fort­able and starts to talk, to open up. And then they start learn­ing. Through learn­ing their self-es­teem moves up.”

Dr. John Otto, Nor­man vet­eri­nar­ian and pro­gram vol­un­teer

[PHOTOS BY STEVE SISNEY, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Kim­berly Wen­thold shows the skills of her dog in train­ing, An­nie, at the dog train­ing fa­cil­ity at Ma­bel Bas­sett Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in McLoud.

Lacey Wal­lace works with McAlis­ter at the open­ing of a new dog train­ing fa­cil­ity. The build­ing and grounds al­low in­mates to train dogs that may be owned but un­ruly or are home­less and in need of so­cial­iza­tion.

[PHOTOS BY STEVE SISNEY, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Kim­berly Wen­thold shows her dog in train­ing, An­nie, at the new dog train­ing fa­cil­ity.

Dr. John Otto speaks at new dog train­ing fa­cil­ity at the Ma­bel Bas­sett Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in McLoud.

Heather Hood waves at her dog in train­ing, Boomer, in­side the ken­nels at the dog train­ing fa­cil­ity in McLoud.

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