Since spring of 2011 there have been 10 “graduating classes” of the SAFE program at the West Kentucky Correctional Complex in Fredonia, Kentucky, a women’s prison. SAFE stands for Saving Animals From Euthanasia, but this program has saved more than the dogs that formally resided on “death row” at the Caldwell County Animal Shelter. Inmates are chosen to train the dogs so that they can be placed in loving homes outside the prison walls.
Gene Reaney, a Licensed Psychological Associate at the West Kentucky Correctional Complex and the director of the SAFE program, thinks the program has been a very positive experience for everyone involved. “The Caldwell County Animal Shelter provides us with 6-7 dogs per training class. These are dogs that have been at the shelter for a while, but have not been adopted. Here at the prison, we assign two of our inmates to train each dog and the dogs then live and sleep with their trainer-inmates in a special area of the prison dorm for the eight-week training session.
“When we first started the program a year and a half ago, the inmates were suspicious of potential problems with living with the dogs in the prison dorm. They were unsure about how to train the dogs, but the Animal Shelter provides us with Kelley Coleman, a very accomplished trainer, to teach our inmates how to train the dogs. The inmates were also initially concerned about the smells and potential mess of having dogs living in the dorm, but that has never been a problem. There is now a long waiting list to get into the dog-handling program and it is the highest paid full-time job at the prison! “
Reaney thinks that the inmate-trainers’ self-esteem has improved incredibly and having the dogs around has improved the atmosphere of the whole prison. “Some of the inmate-trainers are here for robbery, murder, or drugs,” he says. “They have taken away from society. But this program has done great things for them. It has given them a new sense of purpose. They feel they are saving a dog from euthanasia and have been able to give back to society by placing a dog in a loving home. Their goal is to make the pups ‘good pets’ so the dogs do everything with the inmates including going to church and to anger management classes. The inmates even hand knit dog collars and sweaters for the pups.“
Lorraine Schramke, Vice President of Paducah Ford, adopted Sophie, a Shih Tzu-Yorkie mix from the SAFE program last year. She knew she wanted a rescue dog and her bookkeeper Marcia Moore told her about the West Kentucky Correctional Complex’s SAFE program. “Marcia’s husband Eddie is a guard at the prison and he had seen up-close what a great program it was. He told me to go to petfinders.com and look up the ones at the Caldwell County Animal Shelter and there were six listed from the SAFE program. I found two potential pups, but I had to fill out an application, have references, and be accepted by the two trainer-inmates before I could adopt. After several weeks of waiting I was finally accepted for Sophie, but then I had to wait until the end of the eight-week training period.”
By the end of the program, Sophie had been spayed, micro-chipped, potty trained, obedience trained and had been given all of her shots. At SAFE graduation on September 9, 2011, the six pups had caps and gowns and Sophie was not the class valedictorian, but she won Best Personality! Lorraine says, “Her trainers had tears in their eyes as they handed Sophie to me, but they told me that they would be getting a Chihuahua the next week to begin a new eight-week program I should not to be too sad for them.”
A life locked up is difficult on both humans and canines. But working together, this unlikely pairing of unwanted shelter dogs and forgotten criminals, creates something magically transforming. The inmate-trainers give these second-chance pups skills and lessons needed to become good pets and in turn the dogs give the women a chance to do something really productive. People may say the inmates are saving the dogs, but many of the inmates say, in fact, that they’re the ones being saved.
All of the sixty-seven dogs in 10 graduating classes have been placed as cherished pets thanks to the inmate-training program. There is a $125 fee involved with adopting from the SAFE program. For information ontact Avis Lawhorn or Ann Bannister of the Caldwell County Animal Shelter at 270-365-4652.