On June 1, five dogs checked in to California State Prison, L.A. County, in Lancaster. Passing under looping concertina wire, through electronic gates, and past towers where men with high-powered rifles watched the strange procession with blank faces, the dogs seemed unfazed — cheerful, even, to be out of a car after an hour-long drive.

Holding their leashes were five volunteers from Karma Rescue, a non-profit organization that specializes in saving at-risk dogs from high-kill shelters. Unlike the dogs, the volunteers were acutely aware of their surroundings in a Level 4 (high-security) prison, squinting in the high desert sun bouncing off the low, dun-colored buildings.

Shelby, Chuey, Oreo, Rendell, and Eddie would be the first dogs in state history to live full-time at a high-security prison, as part of Paws For Life, a progressive programming initiative launched by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and piloted in L.A. County. At its core, Paws For Life brings rescued shelter dogs to live with inmates for an intensive 12-week training cycle, at the end of which the dog will ideally be ready for adoption. The current bunch is set to “graduate” on Aug. 9.

An inmate walks Chuey; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

An inmate walks Chuey; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

The inmates are training the dogs to prepare them to test for a “Canine Good Citizen” designation, a 10-point obedience certification governed by the American Kennel Club. “With the Canine Good Citizen certification, a dog’s chance for successful adoption increases,” explains Rande Levine, founder of Karma Rescue. “They’re adopted out quicker and less likely to be returned. And the faster we can get a dog adopted out, the faster we can save another shelter dog in its place.”

When the dogs entered the prison yard, all activity stopped. For most inmates it had been years, if not decades, since they had seen a dog. “It’s unbelievable. Up until this morning we still didn’t believe the dogs would come,” said Christopher Murray, who at 25 is the youngest inmate in the Paws For Life program. (The oldest is 72.)

“When the dogs first came in, it was hard to breathe,” said Jack McNiell, incarcerated for 27 years. Overwhelmed by the sight of the lively young dogs, the inmates stared in disbelief, a few visibly emotional, some laughing joyfully at the long-forgotten sensation of running a hand over a soft, shiny coat.

Eddie; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

Eddie; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

With the assistance of Mark Tipton, a professional dog trainer volunteering with Karma Rescue to educate the inmates on all aspects of training as well as general canine wellness, each dog was assigned to a group of three inmates who would take turns caring and training it during all waking hours. For the first week that the dogs were on site, Tipton would be holding 3-hour training sessions every day; every week thereafter he would lead training sessions three times a week until the dogs graduated with their “Canine Good Citizen” certification at the end of week twelve.

While similar dog-training programs have been carried out in prisons and juvenile centers all over the nation, California has never attempted a program of this scope in a prison with this security level. Thirteen of the 14 inmates in the program are serving life sentences.

That said, Paws For Life is implemented in the prison’s A-Yard, an honor yard for those who have demonstrated good behavior, good job performance and no gang affiliations. The approximately 600 A-Yard inmates pride themselves on their unified commitment to peaceful yard with no racial divisions. “It’s important that we recognize the good work these inmates do,” said Warden John Soto, who came to Lancaster in 2012. “I’ve been kicking this idea around for years and the timing finally was right.”

Along with the A-Yard’s Captain Crystal Wood, a driving force behind the program, Soto patiently pushed the initiative it through the prison system all the way to Sacramento. Soto and Wood withstood multiple criticisms leveled at the program, chief among them the fear that inmates would harm the dogs or train the dogs to attack staff and other inmates. “It took some time and logistical thinking as to how we were going to do it,” said Wood. “I had to look at where we could put new fences, where we would house the dogs, what level of custody inmate would participate. We went back and forth between the unions and CDCR many times to ensure we covered every aspect.” 

Captain Wood with Rendell; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

Captain Wood with Rendell; Credit: Photo courtesy Karma Rescue

Wood recalls staff members who protested the “cruelty” of keeping a dog in prison, as if a dog could intellectually know the moral reality of the building it was in, and as if it were preferable to stay in a high-kill shelter, starved for human attention and slated for euthanasia after a waiting period as short as three days. At any rate, the program has gone off without a hitch. “The minute those dogs walked in, the entire yard changed,” said Captain Wood. “Everyone is more calm, is more positive.” Even the most skeptical prison staff have warmed to the program, some already picking out which dogs they want to adopt when the program ends.

The 14 inmates selected for the pilot program went through a rigorous application process that included multiple interviews and a written essay. All of them wrote lovingly of the pets they had growing up; many spoke eagerly of the chance to be around animals once again, just one of a multitude of privileges they assumed had been lost for the remainder of their lifetime. They were also quick to acknowledge connection to a larger humanitarian process outside of the prison walls. ”Paws [For Life] gives me the chance to give back, to do something for someone else, to give back to a society that I cheated,” wrote Traville Craig, 40, in his application essay.

Deangelo McVay, a sharp 47-year-old with a tidy pleat sewn down the front of his prison blues, reflected on the impact of his contribution. “For me, it doesn’t stop. It keeps going. It’s an extension of me,” he said. “[The dog] is coming from a broken place. I can show him love that would keep going out into the world, and that’s a way I can give back.”

Paws For Life raises an interesting question about what it means to rehabilitate people who have no chance of rejoining the outside world. “I know some people in society may think that we as prisoners don’t have anything good left in ourselves or have redeemable qualities, or be allowed any goodness in our lives,” said Christopher Mann, a lanky 40-year-old incarcerated since 1993. “I know in my heart that we have much to offer society even if we potentially will never again be a part of that society.”

“These inmates know they did something wrong, and they want to give back,” said Captain Wood. “This is their home now for the rest of their lives, and they’ve chosen to make it a productive one.”

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