Our instructions were clear. No cell phones, metal items, cash, or underwire bras. Notwithstanding that two of us were women and the third had a titanium leg, we were determined to abide by the rules to get into a place that most people want to get out of.
So it was that, on a sweltering summer morning, we met our escorts in the parking lot of the Hagerstown Correctional Institution. Carrying only our keys, id’s, pads and pens, we followed the walkway to a building right out of The Great Gatsby – assuming you could look beyond the guards, towering chain link fences, and razor wire.
Hagerstown Correctional is a medium security prison located in the hills of Western Maryland where one specific unit, housing 128 inmates, is considered one of the most desirable locations for incarceration in the state. Built in 1932, the appeal has nothing to do with the actual accommodations, but instead with the potential of having a four-legged cell mate.
We had recently learned about America’s VetDogs, a pilot program launched at the prison four years ago, and we were approved for a visit. From our first moment inside, it was clear why this program has become a Godsend for wounded veterans and a game changer for the inmates and officers at Unit #2. Not only has it enabled more dogs to be trained and placed with disabled veterans, it’s also created an atmosphere of calm in an environment that is typically anything but.
“We were all skeptical in the beginning,” admitted Sgt. Vinson, “but it’s brought a whole different vibe to this unit and given these guys an opportunity to finally see beyond themselves.” That became immediately evident by the number of inmates who wanted to shake Matthew White’s hand and thank him for his service. Here finally, standing in front of them, was a compatriot of those who were benefiting from their work.
Matthew’s story is well-known to anyone who follows Soft Side, but it was a revelation to the men gathered there that day. Having lost his leg and nearly his life in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, Matthew credits his rescue dog, Nike, with pulling him out of a very dark and slippery hole. Although Nike isn’t a trained service dog, the inmates understood – better than most – the impact this pup has had on Matthew’s psyche and a bond of a different sort was formed.
While each of the inmates spoke at length about the personal benefits of having a four-legged cellmate, what really made the program special to them was the fact that they were contributing in a way that few had ever done before. “Doing this makes me feel human again,” explained one inmate, “Even after all I’ve done to cause disruption, I can now do something meaningful for others.”
Ironically, as curious as we were to hear their stories, they were just as curious to hear ours. We gave them a brief overview of Show Your Soft Side and how our goal was to reach kids in the hopes of ending animal abuse before it starts. Heads were nodding up and down as we talked about the ability of animals to bring out a soft side even among the strongest and toughest of men.
What followed was a demonstration of what these pups were learning to do. There are, at any given time, 12 dogs in training at the facility – ranging in age from 10 weeks to over a year old. Each is assigned a primary and secondary handler – the primary getting the joy of companionship 80% of the time, while the secondary serves as back up.
Out trot Cleo, Max, and Hoover, the littlest ones who have already mastered down, sit, settle and “leave it” (especially important when confronted with food) to demonstrate their ability to stick by a veteran’s side no matter what the temptation. Next up were Sparky, Ashtron and Sarge – older and a bit further along the training compendium so now able to turn on lights, open refrigerators and filing cabinets, and retrieve necessary items. Each display was rewarded with a kibble, a head rub and a “that’s my boy” by their proud, but temporary guardians.
The dogs live in the facility – one to each wing to help spread the joy throughout the entirety of the “Honor Housing” unit. They do everything with their handlers from recreation to meals, and are credited with being major stress relievers for the other inmates housed in that building. “When Hoover walks in the cafeteria, everybody’s eager to say hello and pet him,” confided one of the primaries.
Boomer is another favorite – already adept at everything from opening doors to handing a credit card to a cashier – he’s also famous for having a cozy relationship with one of the resident cats. Yes, you heard correctly. In addition to the 12 dogs in training, Unit #2 is also home to seven cats – a contribution from Dr. Franklin of Mid-Atlantic Veterinary Hospital, the local vet who provides all medical care to the pups (and kitties) free of charge. It seems a few years back, Dr. Franklin came across a one-eyed pregnant street cat and needed to find a home for the kittens. They now strut around with fancy collars and rule the roost at Hagerstown Correctional. “Every time I turn around, CC has climbed into Boomer’s crate and is cuddled up with him,” laughed his handler. “The other cats like to hide behind walls and jump out at the dogs so, by the time they leave here, cats are their playmates and friends.”
To become a service dog takes a very long time and a lot of work. These 12 pups will stay at the facility for 13 to 16 months, then go to America’s VetDogs headquarters in New York for another three months of training. Those who don’t end up with a veteran are offered to guide dog foundations, police academies or, if all else fails, available for adoption. One of the most remarkable aspects of this program is that it doesn’t cost Maryland taxpayers a cent. All the food, training and necessities are provided by America’s VetDogs and all the medical care is done pro bono by Dr. Franklin. Yet, the impact it’s had on everyone involved is immeasurable.
Sgt. Vinson (who, by the way, uses his off hours to do any needed vet runs) has been in corrections for over 18 years and says, “It’s the best program I’ve ever seen and yet this one doesn’t cost the taxpayers of Maryland a thing.” That kind of enthusiastic endorsement was unanimous among all the participants. “I never knew what I was good at until this,” said one inmate. “It’s given me meaning and a purpose in life.” This is especially poignant considering 36 of the 128 inmates housed there are lifers – some having lived behind bars for nearly 40 years.
Since its inception, 57 dogs have gone through this program. Yet, only once have the inmates come face-to-face with any of the veterans they’ve helped and that was via Skype. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place that day,” said Sgt. Vinson. The dog’s former primary explained, “I hadn’t seen Sunny for six months, but he recognized my voice immediately. When I said ‘give me a kiss’ he leaned over and licked his owner’s face. Tears were running down my face.”
One question we were all curious about was whether it hurt to say good-bye. “Yes, it’s bittersweet and sometimes heart wrenching,” they told us. “But they don’t give us a lot of time to mourn.” As soon as one dog graduates, a new puppy arrives in its place. For the first two weeks, it’s just fun and games, and a chance to bond. The real works kicks in after that. Each of the participants attends three organized trainings per day and, once a week, gets additional instruction from one of the trainers at America’s VetDogs. The men are also schooled on how to look for any signs of stress or special abilities in the dogs. For instance, one inmate talked about a pup who would nudge his face in the middle of the night when he thought he was having nightmares. “At first, I wasn’t too happy about being woken up, but then I found out later that dog went to live with a veteran who suffers from night frights.”
The only time the handlers are away from the dogs are Friday to Sunday afternoons. That’s when “Puppy Raisers” (a/k/a approved fosters in the area) pick up the dogs for a weekend of socialization that they can’t get at the prison, such as interaction with kids and/or visiting local malls and restaurants. With so much tail wagging and puppy kisses Monday through Friday, we wondered if the weekends felt a little empty when the dogs were bundled off? “It’s kind of like when the grandparents take the kids for a weekend – you’re sorry to see them go, but also enjoy not having any responsibilities for a few days.”
Like most preconceptions in life, it’s hard to hold on to them when instead of talking about a faceless group, you’re interacting with another human being. For three hours on a June morning, we shared stories and a common bond with men whose crimes may very well mean they’ll never see life outside those walls again. We talked about dogs and cats, and the difference a wet nose can make on a person’s life – whether they be an injured veteran or an inmate. One man told me, “I’m not the same person I was. When my first dog left, I broke down and cried, and the warden said to me, I want to see you cry because, if I don’t, it means there was no bond.”
If we had any doubt that this program has positively impacted these men, it evaporated the second we entered a different unit. This one was the polar opposite. No dogs, no cats, just silent eyes glaring out from tiny slits in the bars. Would expanding the program make Maryland’s prison populations a gentler, kinder world? We can’t answer that, but what we can say with certainty is that this program has brought out the soft side of 128 men that society views as hardened criminals, given U.S. veterans a second chance at life, and done it all without costing Maryland taxpayers a cent. You’d be hard-pressed to find a win/win more impressive than that.
Postscript: It’s important to note that a program like this can’t work without the support of prison officials. While there may have been some skepticism to begin with, it’s obvious that Warden Richard Dovey, Sgt W. Vinson and the rest of the staff have since embraced the program wholeheartedly. There were moments that day when it felt more like we were visiting a well-behaved frat house than a place of incarceration. There was an easy banter between Sgt. Vinson and the participants, and when Charlie, a four-legged drop-out, now full-time member of the Vinson family arrived on the scene, it was recess for everyone with no end of volunteers willing to step up and play fetch. No longer a “pilot” program – there are now four correctional facilities in Maryland participating with America’s VetDogs.
Photography by Anthony Depanise