SHIRLEY -- Inside MCI-Shirley, dogs are learning to turn off the lights, sense danger and most importantly, provide companionship for inmates. The labs are a privileged creature comfort for their incarcerated handlers. Seven primary trainers, along with secondary handlers, host the dogs as cellmates and teammates in a battle being fought hundreds of miles away.
The lonely days of prison can now be measured in dog years as three of MCI-Shirley's seven dogs, Merry, Willie and Evelyn accompany their humans throughout every minute of the day; an introduction to a life as a service animal. They are half of a foursome of entities that provide disabled veterans with a skilled service animal.
As a result of a story that was published by The Sun and the Nashoba Valley Voice in mid December, the family of an inmate in the story, "Family Teams With Inmates to Train Service Dogs for Vets" reached out to suggest a feature from his perspective. Following a series of security procedures and approvals, the story can be told of how Evelyn, and other service dogs, has touched another life.
Fifteen years into a 50-year sentence, John Smith (not his real name) has finally found peace behind bars. Incarcerated at MCI-Shirley for the past five years, Smith explored the litany of in-house programs designed to help inmates pass the days productively.
Originally from Maine, and where he began serving his sentence in 2004, He spent the first 10 years in prison being shipped to various facilities around the country.
"I gave up on life itself and shut out all the parts of me that didn't help me in prison. I got involved in gang politics. Maine DOC couldn't handle me." Since arriving at Shirley's medium security, his life has taken a different path, albeit within the same physical confines.
Finding faith in the Catholic community and finding love via pen-pals, Smith's latest positive turning point came when VetDogs finally approved him to be a full-time trainer for the nationwide program, which consists of the dog, Evelyn in this case, spending the week living with the inmate and the weekends with a local host family.
Smith and Evelyn are one set of seven inmate/dog partnerships currently working together inside the prison. All the inmates are carefully vetted volunteers for the program who agree to the year-long commitment. All of the dogs are labs, including 13-month-old Merry and 14-month-old Willie. The dogs live in the cell with their handler, where they get constant reinforcement of tips and techniques that they receive from VetDog professionals in weekly, structured training.
"This is a great privilege for the inmates," said one prison official. "It benefits the dog but greatly affects the inmate in positive ways."
Evelyn learns the basic discipline from her incarcerated handler and learns about social interactions from the volunteer family in a training program that lasts more than a year. She is one of about 400 dogs that America's VetDogs/Guide Dog Foundation has placed into the hands of wounded warriors around the country.
Smith, himself a veteran of U.S. Army, said, "I believe if I had some sort of counseling or maybe a service dog then I would never have come to prison, which is why I volunteered for the program in the first place." He cites his "bad reaction" to an otherwise solvable problem as the impetus of his crime. "When I got out of the military I had really bad PTSD. I made a lot of mistakes because of this and couldn't really grasp life at the time."
"I spend my days training Evelyn so that hopefully a veteran in my position doesn't have to face what I have faced." The dogs, most of which pass through the prison system, eventually become full-time service dogs, comfort animals and companions for struggling or disabled veterans.
Write to an Inmate is another program that Smith is involved in, predating by years the VetDogs participation. Through this exchange of letters, he met an Australian woman and the two are planning to marry. "The dog program has really helped him. He is a much happier person and always has a funny story to tell me about Evelyn," she said.
The animals' paw prints are left on the inmates, the local families -- who are also carefully screened along with their homes, and on the veteran with whom the dog is ultimately paired. After leaving the prison system, the dogs are returned to VetDogs home facility in New York, where they receive even more specialized training that is tailored to the exact needs of the recipient.
"Even we as the staff members get to know the dogs as well," said one employee inside the Programs Building of the sprawling facility.