Members Lori McLuckie and Bob Gerle are featured in this story. I know that I write about the animals that are trained in prison often, but it's because it's the best thing that can happen to someone who is in. Unconditional love goes a lot further than a nightstick. I know it's long, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing
In 1996, at the age of 20, Robert Gerle landed in prison. A series of felonies had climaxed in an aggravated assault charge when he took a police officer's gun and left him bound by his own handcuffs.
At a time when most people are just beginning their adult lives, Gerle found himself at something of an ending. A 24-year sentence in front of him, it was difficult to imagine how he would fill his days.
Within a few years, Gerle began teaching math and science inside Arrowhead Correctional Center's GED program in Cañon City. He gained satisfaction from helping other inmates, but after 3 years, it was waning.
Around that time, a rumor began circulating that the "dog program" was coming to Arrowhead. Gerle didn't get too excited. As he points out, "99.9 percent of prison rumors are complete horse hockey."
Then a transferred inmate showed up from the nearby Territorial Correctional Facility. He'd been in the dog program there and soon would be helping facilitate one at Arrowhead — or so Gerle heard.
It wasn't until minor renovations began on one wing of cells on the living unit, with bunks raised to fit kennels and a potty yard constructed outside, that Gerle believed there'd soon be dogs bounding about. Along with many others who met the prerequisites — six months of good behavior, possession of a diploma or GED, and non-sex offender status — he submitted a formal application to join the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program.
The program would rescue dogs from shelters and desperate situations, vaccinate them and then spay or neuter them. At that point, they'd be turned over to inmates to train for sale as companion, service, search and rescue or explosive-detection dogs. The process would take anywhere from a month to the better part of a year for the specialized dogs....On a cold, early January morning, 36-year-old Marion Crawford and his dog for the month, Lucky, stand alongside his teammates and their dogs against the fence of a K-9 agility course outside his cellblock in Territorial Correctional Facility. Above the men, giant spools of barbed wire line a wall of rock quarried from the scarred mountainside behind the prison.
Though the dogs appear at play, their routines are really the culmination of weeks of obedience training. The dogs keep dually focused on the impediments before them and their trainer's commands. As they grow more skilled with each run through the course, the dogs build confidence. So do the men."This program saves dogs' lives, and it changes inmates' lives," says Stevens. "It teaches them new life skills. Some people never even learned how to get up in the morning and go to work.
"One of the things that happens in prison is all an inmate can see is "me-me-me,' ... up there on that block [are] 14 men that have to learn to work together."
Today, the program also accepts "boarding-in" dogs from people who are tired of wrestling with behavioral issues. The money that the DOC charges those folks keeps the program afloat.
It's the companionship, and "somebody who loves you unconditionally," according to Crawford, that make the work worthwhile. And it's the simple occurrence that brings light to the otherwise staid environment. For many inmates, the best part of the day is what had been one of the worst — wake-up call.
Crawford, his face lighting up in the retelling, says that each morning the dogs wake up just before the inmates and sit obediently in their kennels, awaiting the morning bell. As soon as it rings and the lights blink on, the dogs scamper wildly out of the kennels and jump into the inmates' beds to say good morning.
"It's lovely," says Crawford. "It happens every day."
After the ritual, the real work begins. The inherent irony in it: People who've been locked up because they seemingly didn't know how to behave properly in society are training dogs to do just that.In the words of 49-year-old Cobbin, serving a life sentence for armed robbery: "It's not a pet. It's a job."
The specialized skill earns dog trainers $2 per day, along with incentive bonuses; the average offender makes only 60 cents a day. Aside from the canteen money, and something positive to do, the program yields inmates a master trainer's certificate and the option to earn an associate degree in canine behavior modification from the Colorado community-college system.
When Lori McLuckie, 46, was first accepted into the K-9 program, she'd been in prison 14 years. It had been so long since she'd nurtured something that she was afraid she was going "to break" her dog.
Seated in the corner of a drab conference room, a Dachshund mix in her lap, McLuckie speaks softly and chooses her words deliberately.
"It opens you up," she says, "and you tend to close up in here. When you first come to the program ... you feel kinda raw for a while."
McLuckie, in for life on a murder charge, was one of the first five handlers to launch the dog program at the women's correctional facility. It didn't take long for her to grow into it.
Last spring, she was assigned a blind and deaf, mixed-breed dog named Gracie. On her own, the trainer ultimately devised a system based on a combination of scent and touch. She would stomp a foot next to Gracie so the dog could feel the brush of air and vibration on the floor to communicate the sit, stay or disciplinary commands and appeal to Gracie's nose — all dogs' primary sensory unit — with treats.
She, like all the inmates, needs to believe in second chances.To date, Stevens and Sanguinetti say no major problems have occurred inside the program.
"The inmates police it," says Sanguinetti. "They don't want one of their peers to blow it for all of them."
"Yeah," adds Stevens, "I wouldn't want to be the inmate who caused the dog program to be closed."
Breaking the cycle
Now 32, Robert Gerle is out on intensive supervision parole in metro Denver, having been released into a halfway house in November 2006 and paroled in April 2007. He wears a bracelet that monitors his movements, but he has earned limited freedoms such as a relaxed curfew and driving privileges to work, church and meetings with his parole officer.
Gerle stands out as a success for his thus-far successful transition back into society — especially considering the state's recidivism rate is 49.8 percent, according to the DOC's latest three-year study.He likes to believe that when the general public sees inmates working hard to save dogs that, in many cases, were steps away from euthanization — that they are changing behavior patterns and creating good companions — perhaps they'll say, "Maybe, maybe, they're not so bad. Maybe there's some redeeming qualities in some of these folks who happen to be locked up for making bad decisions."
That is how Martinez, 30 years old and in for up to 50 years on murder and robbery, hopes society will view her.
"You don't see what I'm here for," she says, "you see what I'm doing."
K-9 Companion program instructor Edward Shallufy says he's heard many inmates say they never cared for anyone or anything outside prison, but now they feel proud to take care of the dogs.
"It's really strange to see a 300-pound guy with muscles bigger than my neck get down on his knees with sweet talk and baby talk ... caring for [the dogs] when they're sick ..."
Gerle understands there will be plenty of skeptics. To them, he points out that most people — 95 to 97 percent, according to Sanguinetti. — will get out of prison someday.
"Do we want them to get out having this attitude that the entire world is against them, or out with some education and skills that will allow them to become the proverbial productive members of society?" he asks. "The dogs were, and continue to be, the single best ambassador between inmates and staff, and between inmates and the public, that we could possibly ask for.
"No matter how well I present myself, I don't have four legs and a tail."