Melissa McKee, a participant of the Prison Pet Partnership, with her dogs Harper and Ernie.

Melissa McKee had a unique job while incarcerated for 11 years at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Wash. 

McKee earned dog training and grooming certifications through the nonprofit Prison Pet Partnership and began taking classes through Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a college program run in partnership with University of Puget Sound. Her bonds with animals, as well as her college education, kept her grounded during reentry in 2017. 

McKee earned her bachelor’s degree from Evergreen State College in 2021, and is now finishing a master’s program. She also recently received a promotion to senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, where she works on community responder programs. 

While the grooming certification she earned through the Prison Pet Partnership helped her secure a job after she was released, it was her relationship with a Labrador Retriever named Harper that gave her strength.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Charlotte West: Have you always had animals in your life?

Melissa McKee: I grew up in a rural area where I didn’t have a lot of access to like neighbors and friends. And so I survived by my relationships with animals. When I arrived at the prison and saw the pet partnership, it was like the one little beacon of hope for me. If I could just do that, it would give me a path forward both professionally and also as a means of survival. 

But I was so destroyed in terms of my confidence. I really didn’t know how I could be part of it. It was a small program, there were like 10 women. And at that time, there were about 900 women on campus. And I was like, ‘Why would they ever choose me?’ 

Can you talk about the first few years of your incarceration?

I didn’t end up in prison because I knew how to make good decisions. In 2007 when I was arrested on the charge that sent me to prison, I was looking at a really long stretch of time. 

When I arrived at the prison, I was pregnant. When I gave birth, I spent one night with my daughter in the hospital, and then I was cuffed up and taken back to the prison. At that point, the last little thing that I had of my own was gone and I was just grappling with how all of this had happened. 

So I did what I knew how to do, which was act out. It took me a couple of years, until I had amassed enough behavioral change, to even begin to be eligible for the program. But once that happened, I applied and took their entry-level animal care certification. 

How did working with animals help you heal some of the trauma you were dealing with?

I needed to learn things like consistency. I needed sanctioned affection because that’s one of the things that you don’t get access to on the inside. Any type of expression of love in prison is an illicit behavior. And in my experience, love is the thing that has the power to change all of us. 

I also recognized that I needed to learn self-regulation, because dogs are social animals. If I’m not in alignment, then my dog can’t be in alignment. Those are really the things that I credit with getting me to where I am now and to wherever I’m going next. Yes, grooming was important. Getting a job was important. But it was the things that the dogs themselves taught me that reworked my entire person. 

How did your relationships with animals change the way that you related to other people?

A dog gives you an opportunity to rewrite the story of how you showed up in these other relationships. And there’s such an immediate cause and effect that you see when you’re working with a dog, ‘If I do this, I get this response.’ 

The way that dogs behave and the way that people behave are very similar. It’s learning theory. 

I don’t know how to talk to someone, but I know how to let them pet my dog. So it was like this bridge that allowed me to work some of these other social skills. 

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from working with dogs is related to why I was in prison. My crime, like many other women’s experiences, was directly tied to a toxic and abusive relationship. I often would think back about how, if I could have just figured out how to walk away, if I could have just figured out how to say goodbye, the outcome might have been very different. And so training dogs for this program, it gave me this opportunity to practice loving and then letting go. 

That set me up for different patterns in relationships. I had healing that I had to do. No human being could reach me, but through the process of being softened by my relationship with these dogs, then I could start to bring people into the fold.

How did you transition from incarceration to working as a groomer and becoming a full-time student?

I was incarcerated for a total of 11 years. I only started taking classes with Freedom Education Project Puget Sound about a year before my release. I had amassed a handful of credits and applied to Evergreen while I was still inside, and was accepted. So I entered Evergreen as a sophomore and graduated in 2021.

I didn’t know I could be a good student. I didn’t know that I actually have a really great brain for analysis and critical thinking. So training dogs, then also doing college, all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, I might be a more complete person than I thought I was.’  

And someone brought me a paper application for Evergreen. Beth Revard was the executive director of the Prison Pet Partnership at the time. I remember standing in her office with this paper application in my hand asking, ‘Do you really think I’m smart enough for this?’

She encouraged me to apply. She said, ‘Melissa, you’re too smart not to.’

I also knew I needed a place to land. I couldn’t even comprehend a job search, so I had the vocational education manager make a one-pager about me with some pictures of my grooming that we sent out to all the grooming shops in Olympia. Jason Grant from Grateful Dogs Grooming actually came to the prison and hired me on the spot. As soon as I got to work release, I had a job. 

Since that time, I’ve been able to connect two other former participants, one who is currently in work release, to work at Grateful Dogs. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. 

How did you end up with Harper, the service dog you trained while you were still inside?

A video featuring Melissa McKee and her service dog Harper prior to her release in 2017.

My release to the community coincided with Harper’s return to the prison after spending time in foster training. Soon thereafter, Beth Rivard, the executive director of the pet partnership then, brought Harper to visit me. Harper and I picked up where we left off. 

As time passed, it became clear that Harper was not meant for service. She was smart as a whip and had skills galore, but she began to display some behavioral issues that would have been difficult for a person with a disability to handle. She became stubborn and reluctant to perform even simple commands on cue for other volunteers or trainers. Eventually, it became too difficult to witness her distress, and I had to back away from working with her. She did not “belong” to me. 

I walked away from her because I felt powerless to change the situation, accepting that it was only possible if I didn’t see her anymore. Two weeks later, the call from the Prison Pet Partnership came in. Harper was being released from the program. I was given the first offer to adopt her..

It was a wacky situation. I was fresh out of prison, living in a shared housing arrangement, and had just adopted Ernie, a large, deaf white boxer. I knew that Harper and I belonged together, but I didn’t know if I was situated to give her the life she deserved. I ultimately arrived at the truth that if I did not adopt Harper, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

What’s next?

I am graduating from Evergreen in June with my master’s in public administration and public policy. I was elected as the graduate student commencement speaker by my cohort. It’s one thing to be appointed to something, it’s another to have your peers lift you up like that. 

I finally finished the commencement speech last week. It is about extending our reach, resilience, gratitude, transformation, and the power, privilege, and responsibility that comes through education. 

My partner has made me promise to take at least a two-year break from school. I’ve essentially been in school since I was released seven years ago. I’m really tired, because I’ve been working simultaneously. I’m getting married in December, which is incredible. What I really want to do is pour the resources that I’ve been pouring into school, into my family and into my community. 

Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.