A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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Prison pet programs foster human-animal bond

Last month when I was visiting a college class at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s only women’s prison, one of the students was getting a lot of extra attention. It wasn’t one of the dozen women enrolled in the literature class. It was a black Lab named Marvel who is training to be a service dog. He spent time laying on the floor, eating treats, squeezing onto his handler’s lap, and distracting our photographer. 

Marvel is a participant in one of hundreds of prison pet programs around the country. I’ve been wanting to write about these training programs since I started at Open Campus in fall 2021. 

Then last spring when I was visiting the Washington Corrections Center for Women to report on a trades training program, I asked the public information officer if we could make a stop at the Prison Pet Partnership, mainly so I could pet some dogs. It turns out that not only is the program the first of its kind, it also served as a model for hundreds of other prison pet programs in the country. It’s also unique because in addition to training service dogs, the program allows community members to send their dog to the prison for boarding, grooming, and training. 

The program staff shared that members of the public appreciate the secure environment. Only one dog has ever managed to escape, a dachshund named Capitan who followed a delivery worker out of the kennel area. “We hear over the radio 10 minutes later that there’s a little wiener dog running around the campus. All these officers were trying to catch this dog,” said Olivia Simmons, director of programs for the nonprofit. “He came back. He just took himself on a little tour.”

Last month, I went back to the Washington women’s prison with Ellen Banner, a photographer for the Seattle Times. We spent time with women like Danielle Carter, who explained that the pet partnership not only trains women for “realistic careers”, but also gives them an important emotional outlet. We also met Krystal, a woman who is fostering a pair of kittens to socialize them for adoption in the community. As we were leaving her housing unit, she pulled us aside and said that the cats also teach the women how to receive affection. “A lot of us don’t know how to accept love,” she said. 

A woman incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor fosters a cat in her housing unit Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

recent first-person essay in The Marshall Project highlighted similar effects. “I was learning so much about dogs and their behavior, but also about softening my ego by asking others for help,” writes Adam Roberts about Lee, the dog he trained at a prison in New York. 

Research has shown that prison pet programs go far beyond the certifications that participants earn. One recent study even found that dog training programs helped break down racial barriers between different groups of men. 

When I started reporting this story, I thought it was going to be about jobs. But it turned out to be about much more than that. As this bonus interview with Melissa McKee, a participant who was released in 2017, illustrates, working with animals teaches valuable skills that translate into many areas of life. Her story also made me think of Sneaky White, a Vietnam vet who spent 40 years inside and was the first person in California to parole with his dog. 

Melissa shares how the human-animal bond that started in prison led her to where she is today – about to graduate from a master’s program at Evergreen State College in Olympia. 

Behind bars, women in Washington learn to care for pets – and themselves.

Amalia Castillo, who is incarcerated at the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor, works with a service dog in training, Patrick, on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Castillo is a certified dog handler and certified pet care technician at the prison. (Ellen Banner/Seattle Times)

A golden retriever on a leash led by a pet technician in scrubs saunters through the lobby of the Washington Corrections Center for Women. It bypasses the metal detector and makes its way across a yard and through several locked gates to its destination: a doggy day care operated by incarcerated women. 

Members of the public can send their dog here for boarding, grooming and training through a program founded with the belief that human-animal bonds could be beneficial to people in prison.

It also offers participants something more: tangible skills that prepare them for in-demand employment once they leave. Through the program, the women can learn to train service dogs and earn industry certifications in pet care and grooming, jobs that are part of a booming pet economy. 

The Gig Harbor program — which is run by a nonprofit called the Prison Pet Partnership that operates on the prison’s grounds — was the first prison pet program in the country. The program, which was founded in 1981, became the model for at least 290 such programs operating across the country today, including six at other Washington prisons.

Read the full story here

Related coverage: 
++ How training in the trades is helping women succeed after prison

Learning to love and let go

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. 

While she was inside, she 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. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation: 

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

Melissa McKee: 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. 

Read the full interview here.

Related coverage: 
++ The power of hiring  a formerly incarcerated student

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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