STERLING — Among the 2,550 inmates housed in the multi-security level Sterling Correctional Facility are 21 rather furry, four-legged residents, who, like their taller two-legged companions, are getting a second chance at life through an unlikely partnership.
It’s a sunny Friday morning in the prison yard. Inmate Julian Whalen beams with pride as his training dog, Duchess Lady, shakes his hand, sits, lays down, stays and rolls over on command. Whalen’s gentle demeanor with the dog disguises the fact that he’s serving time in the Sterling Correctional Facility for aggravated robbery.
“She calms me, keeps me out of trouble,” Whalen said.
It was that line of thinking — giving inmates an outlet, a chance to turn their lives around when they’re released — that started the Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program back in 2002.
Debi Stevens, now supervisor of the program, remembers being approached by a major working in the Cañon City prison after one of her dog training classes.
“He asked if I would be interested in starting a dog program at the prison, and I said, ‘You bet I would,’” Stevens said with a laugh.
The program, started with five dogs in 2002, is now in nine correctional facilities in the state with 138 inmate handlers and 150 dogs.
Inmates from PTKCP have tended to stay out of trouble upon release. Recidivism rate is between 10 to 15 percent, according to Stevens, which is far less than 50 percent rate for inmates who leave prison without vocational training and 25 percent of inmates who leave the prison with training through the Colorado Correctional Industries.