Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Prisoner Dog Program

When convict Ben LaVigueur sits in a wheelchair posing as a disabled person these days, it isn't a scam.

The 29-year-old inmate at Fort Lyon Correctional Facility acts out a role to teach Rachel - a black Labrador - how to serve her future master: a paraplegic student attending graduate school at Harvard University.

"What this dog will do is something I would never have been able to offer someone before I came to prison," LaVigueur said recently while sitting in a wheelchair next to a grass prison courtyard. Rachel sat rigidly beside him, staring intently at his face, awaiting his next command.

LaVigueur is among 12 Fort Lyon inmates teaching canines rescued from dog pounds to serve disabled people and

Chris Vogt gives his German Shepherd, named Cahill, a command during training in the courtyard of the Fort Lyon prison Thursday, September 27, 2007. (Post / Karl Gehring)
police and fire departments as well as crime victims. The prisoners teach dogs skills they will use to find cadavers following house fires, sniff out bombs and protect a victim of a brutal rape in New York City.

In the fifth year of the Colorado Department of Corrections' dog training program, inmates across Colorado are teaching dogs as many as 55 commands each. The work demands patience not suited to most inmates, yet it also requires the concentrated devotion of people like inmates who have a lot of time on their hands.

"This program will bring mean people like me to tears," said Christopher Vogt, a second-degree murder convict from Grand Junction serving a 48-year sentence. "I understand how privileged I am" to be in the program.

Vogt instructs other inmates at Fort Lyon, near Las Animas in southeastern Colorado, how to train dogs. He has taken correspondence courses, earning master dog-trainer designation.

"If I got out tomorrow, this is what I would do," Vogt said.

The inmate trainers must apply for the role, said Lt. Becky Mills, the program liaison. No sex offenders are accepted, and inmates with write-ups for bad behavior are excluded.

Working with the dogs is such a coveted privilege that LaVigueur said he has overlooked taunts and insults from other inmates in order to remain in the program.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katheryn Sanguinetti said that in each of the eight Colorado prisons that have a dog program, tensions have gone down. The dogs seem to affect more than just the inmates who are involved, she said.

"It's had an amazing calming effect on every facility," Sanguinetti said.

Mills said the inmates are responsible for the welfare of the dogs 24 hours a day. Each dog stays in a kennel in the master's cell. The inmates bathe and feed the dogs and nurse them when they are sick.

The inmates work with the dogs six to eight hours a day, running them repeatedly through complicated drills like retrieving a wheelchair, fetching shoes or pushing an elevator button with a nose.

It can take hundreds of teaching attempts to train a dog to do a single task.

Dennis Barnum, 60, serving a 48- year term for burglary, frequently hid tennis balls for his detection dog, Macey, a chocolate Labrador. Macey eventually will work for the Tennessee State Patrol, Barnum said.

Finding the ball will help train Macey to find suspicious objects like a bomb, Mills said. Barnum repeatedly hides the ball, and Macey never seems to tire of racing after it.

"She is just a ball junkie," Barnum said. "We try to get their work drive high so they can go eight hours straight."

The dog will someday be required to sniff relentlessly through a school or a public building for a whiff of chemicals used to make bombs.

The reward for inmates is written all over their faces when they work with the dogs, Mills said.

"You can't have much better time when you are locked up," LaVigueur said.

But when a dog is ready for his new master, it is an emotional parting, Vogt said.

"It's tough for us. But you feel for the person receiving the dog," he said. "It's almost like sending your child off to college."

The Denver Post


Anonymous said...

This seems to be a very good,worthwhile project.They have it or something like it in Lebanon Correctional Instition in Ohio.I saw a film about it on T.V. a while back.

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