Program helps rehabilitate inmates at California Health Care Facility

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

Simon and Cody may look like typical puppies – Cody with his big ears and Simon with his impressively fluffy coat – but in reality they are well on their way to becoming highly trained service dogs destined to one day help people with disabilities. And while the pups may look typical, their handlers are anything but – they are inmates at the California Health Care Facility (CHCF).

Warden Brian Duffy has teamed with Canine Companions for Independence, a service dog-training program that provides assistance dogs at no charge to clients. Canine Companion dogs serve as mobility assistance dogs, dogs for people with autism, and as service dogs in a variety of settings, from courtrooms to classrooms.

The first step of their training often begins in prison, where inmates learn how to get the dogs ready for advanced training.

“It’s a nice way for them to give back and feel good,” said Carly Fermer, who comes to the Stockton prison weekly to work with the dogs and their inmate handlers. “They have so much time, and they really take the job seriously. The dogs are really, really sharp on all their commands when they come out.”

Indeed, dog-training programs are an emerging trend inside prisons. Inmates are able to devote 24-7 attention to the dogs, including bringing them to school and work assignments. The dogs sleep in kennels inside the prison dorms, and also spend one week each month with handlers outside to increase their socialization. In return, inmates learn new skills while also being able to give back to society.

“I hurt people, and now it’s time to help people,” said an inmate named Woody. “These dogs are really going to help some people. It’s part of me turning over, changing my life.”

Seven inmates are assigned to the Puppy Program, which Warden Duffy plans to grow to include up to 20 handlers and 10 dogs. The application process included interviews with the warden, who made sure that the men were ready to put in hard work to the program that is already having a positive effect on not just them, but the institution as well.

“The thing that amazed me is the first day when the dogs showed up, they came onto the yard and every inmate on that yard stopped,” Duffy remembered. “Every last one of them stopped and watched them the whole way while they were walking in. That’s something you don’t normally see in prison.”

The training aspect is something new for all the handlers involved, even those who had dogs when they were growing up. Inmate Jack said that while it’s one thing to raise a “normal” dog, teaching a dog how to be a service animal is a whole new ball game.

For their 18 to 24 months in prison, Cody and Simon will learn a battery of 40 commands, from “sit” and “stay” to more advanced skills like opening doors and retrieving dropped items. The handlers and volunteers will track the dogs’ progress to determine what type of service best suits their abilities.

Inmate Jack said working with the volunteers is an educational experience, and Fermer and her team are there to help every step of the way.

“We have a million questions every time they come, and they answer our questions to their best knowledge,” he said. “The way they work with dogs is amazing. It’s a great learning experience.”

Fermer, who trained her first Canine Companions dog in 1999, said it’s natural to get attached to the dogs, and hard to face the reality that they will leave. But when handlers learn where their dogs are going and who they are going to help, it’s all worth it.

Inmate Kevin said while Cody and Simon may be cute little puppies, he actually looks up to them as role models because they are working hard to help people. He found out about the program a month after his mother died of multiple sclerosis, and knew the program came to this prison for a reason.

“When I heard about this program, I thought, wow, what a great opportunity to be able to help somebody like my mom,” he said. “I prayed, and I got accepted. I’m very passionate about this program because it gives me an opportunity to nurture and train an animal that is one day going to help somebody.”

“This is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said. “I’m incarcerated, but look at what I’m doing.”