Missouri Department of Corrections director George Lombardi (light-colored suit) and South Central Correctional Center warden Michael Bowersox stand among offender handlers and dogs involved in The Animal Shelter of Texas County’s Healing Paws Foster Dog program during a ceremony honoring the effort May 3 in Licking.

Even for people involved in it, measuring the impact of the Missouri Department of Corrections’ Puppies for Parole program is difficult.

And to be sure, when DOC director George Lombardi decided to initiate the program early in 2010, he never dreamed it would become what it has become. But ever since the first animals were enrolled at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, the fast-growing, nationally recognized dog-training program has had a positive effect on literally thousands of people.

When South Central Correctional Center institutional activity director Tina Holland approached The Animal Shelter of Texas County that same year regarding the possibility of getting a Puppies for Parole program going at the prison in Licking, shelter president Rita Romines didn’t see what was coming, either. But only a couple of short years after the shelter agreed get on board and partner with the prison, the resulting Healing Paws Foster Dog Program has led to more than 100 dogs being trained by offender handlers and adopted out to people with various forms of special needs.

“When we were approached, we were the second shelter in the state to be asked to do this,” Romines said. “We didn’t really have a lot of information on it to go by, but we did some research and decided to go ahead with it. We never envisioned that it would go where it has gone, and so positively affect so many animals and so many different types of people – including kids, veterans and others.”

Lombardi, SCCC warden Michael Bowersox, offender handlers and many other members of the prison population joined Romines, TASTC manager Marsha Martin and dozens people who have benefited from Healing Paws for a ceremony honoring the program May 3 at the prison. The crowd featured some 100 people, and handlers gave demonstrations with each of the dogs currently enrolled in the program.

Lombardi said that in becoming something far greater than he ever thought it would, Puppies for Parole is now a part of 18 of the DOC’s 20 prison facilities and more than 830 dogs have been adopted out of the program statewide.

“It’s gone way beyond my vision from when we started it up,” he said. “We are by far one of the largest dog programs in any of the corrections systems in the United States. And it’s happened so quickly – it has taken the imagination of a lot of workers and a lot of staff, along with the offenders. They’ve all taken it on full bore, and it has made a significant difference.

That difference has not only had a positive effect on people directly involved, but on entire prison populations.

“One of the things I’ve seen is that when you come to prison, it’s taboo to show any kind of affection between inmates,” Lombardi said. “But you can do that with a dog and you get it back 100-percent. That is a healthy situation that can make a change in a person.”

Dogs enrolled in Healing Paws typically come from abusive situations and bear subsequent mental and physical scars. Those characteristics are sometimes shared by their offender handlers.

“A lot of these guys – just like the dogs – have abuse and neglect in their backgrounds,” Lombardi said. “So when they see dogs that have been in that kind of a situation, they absolutely can relate and have empathy. What I see happen is that it builds compassion in people where it didn’t exist before or where it has been suppressed because of their childhood trauma. All of those things are positive and I think this can make a real difference in individuals, which in the end benefits public safety when guys go out who have experienced a change.”

The first four dogs sent by TASTC to the SCCC for use in the Healing Paws program arrived on March 10, 2010.

“There were four or five hundred offenders on the yard when they arrived, and the yard went totally silent,” Holland said. “That’s when we started to realize this was going to be more than we had first thought.”

Last week’s ceremony celebrated all 104 Healing Paws graduates and attendees viewed a video presentation showing photos of each one. Bowersox echoed the fact that the positive affect of the dogs’ presence hasn’t been limited to the handlers, but has spread throughout the prison.

“As far as my career goes, it’s one where it’s cruel, hard and at times brutal,” he said. “Having this program here truly has made everybody soft – staff, inmates, everybody. And I think with all the stuff that’s going on, that’s what we need: a softer world. The dogs have done that for us.”

Programs like Puppies for Parole and its Healing Paws offshoot give many offenders a purpose and a chance to begin rebuilding their lives.

“I keep telling these fellas they’re here as punishment, not for punishment, and there is still some good in you, so let’s bring it out,” Bowersox said. “This program is one example of what these guys can do. To the man, they’ll tell you they’re sorry for what they’ve done on the outside, and when they get here they want to make things better and make amends. This is a program where there’s proof in the pudding.”

“It’s a win-win situation times 10,” Lombardi said. “Now we’re talking about bringing dogs into our mental health units, our hospice units, and into our infirmaries. It really is making a difference for those individuals as well.”

Lombardi’s plans for the future of Puppies for Parole include starting the program at the two remaining prisons, and he hopes to eventually see specific prisons doing specific forms of training.

“If we can really continue what we’ve started, we could start specializing different prisons for different kinds of issues, like mental health issues, veterans issues, and developmentally disabled people,” he said. “By concentrating on one particular issue at a specific facility, then inmates would really build up their skill.”

Even in its current form, Puppies for Parole is continually expanding and evolving.

“I’m reaching out to the Special Olympics people now to see if parent of those kids wouldn’t benefit from the use of a dog,” Lombardi said. “We’ve had cases where children with autism have had a tremendous benefit from having a dog and they sometimes even seem to relate to the animal better than they relate to humans, and it really helps create theraputic changes for them.

“This is just going in all kinds of directions.”

One of the dogs highlighted at the ceremony was Edward, a formerly homeless shepherd mix who recently graduated from his training regimen and this week was shipped to Arizona to begin his mission as an assistance animal for a disabled veteran, as part of the Pets for Patriots program. TASTC has already been contacted regarding the possibility of providing an assist dog for a disabled vet in California.

Laurie Barnaba, who lives in Texas County outside of Cabool, is a recreation officer at the SCCC and trains offenders to become handlers. Her background includes training and showing German shepherds in Arizona and being a 4-H program dog trainer. Like her DOC superiors, she’s amazed by the multi-layered effect of Healing Paws.

“It’s unmeasurable and it’s hard to put into words,” Barnaba said. “You see the offenders change from being angry and mad at the world to learning things that they don’t get in here, like compassion, sensitivity, and caring for another being. And then the feeling of being able to be rewarded by seeing the person you hand a dog off to.

“This is not about prisoners having pets, and for those of us who work in the prison, our reward is seeing all this happen. It’s more than just a program, it’s a feeling.”

During the ceremony, offender handlers “passed the leash” of two other dogs in addition to Edward. Representatives of the Missouri School for the Deaf were presented a cocker spaniel named Mozart, who is deaf and trained to respond to hand signals. Bowersox adopted Sonny, a German shepherd who was born at TASTC in January and bottle fed because of issues with his mother.

Bowersox plans to use his new companion to promote Puppies for Parole as he travels to various locations to speak about the program.

“Now I’ll be able to provide tangible evidence of how successful this program is,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to stand in front of a bunch of people and talk about it, it’s another to be able to show an example. Sonny is going to be great to have around.”

While TASTC still faces ongoing overcrowding issues and continually deals with other matters generated by being the only such facility in Missouri’s largest county, Healing Paws will continue to be a bright spot in the routine.

“It really touches our hearts,” Romines said, “and is so much more a blessing to us than we ever thought it would be at the beginning.”

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