Greetings from Good Works On Earth
'Death Row Dogs' Find New Life in Prison
Inmates Train Unadoptable Animals
March 20, 2000
MANSFIELD, Ohio (AP) -- Late last year
both Eric Roberson and Star, a young
female Labrador retriever, were sitting in
their separate cells. He was 16 years away
from his first parole board hearing for a 1992
murder conviction. She was one day away
from euthanasia at the Ashland Humane Society.
Within 24 hours, they would both be sharing
Roberson's cell, and both would be looking
toward a better future.
While many prisons across the nation have
introduced therapy and guide dog training
curriculums, Mansfield Correctional Institution
has established a unique program of its own. The institution
has begun bringing together castaway dogs from the pound and
castaway men from the prison.
Row Dogs' by the inmates, the dogs are socialized and
within the prison walls, then put up for adoption. Since the
program began in the fall of 1998, not
a single dog has been returned to the pound.
are underdogs too,' explains program coordinator Carol
Mull. 'The men identify
them and have a great desire to help them.'
'A harsh environment'
A high school
dropout and father of two young daughters, Roberson
ended a night of drinking and drug abuse with two friends with the
robbery of a bar
and the murder of its owner. When the friends testified
against him, Roberson plea-bargained his future and ended up in
Mansfield. He say he does not remember much of the night.
came to prison, he has overcome his addictions, earned a high
school equivalency diploma, and been baptized in the Presbyterian
Church. But what
he says saved his heart came on the day he noticed a
flyer looking for volunteers to enter a dog training program.
in a harsh environment here,' Roberson explains. 'I always
viewed this place
as being filled with the rejects of society, so I couldn't
imagine this happening.'
But Deputy Warden Jesse Williams could.
Williams had introduced
a pilot dog program into the Lorain Correctional
several years earlier. He found that the presence of dogs there
provided training and socialization
not just for the dogs, but for the prisoners.
When he transferred to Mansfield, he knew he wanted
a dog program there as well.
Officials at the Ashland Humane
Society jumped at the chance to participate.
'It benefits them,
it benefits us, it benefits society,' Mull says. 'They're
so happy they don't have to euthanize these dogs.'
Prisoner takes over complete care. Prisoners
are screened before being allowed to participate.
There are reviews of
their criminal records -- no child or animal abusers,
sexual predators -- and of their conduct within the prison walls.
with a dog, a prisoner is fully responsible for its care:
washing, housebreaking and training. Cellmates act
as helpers, but
no more. Prison guard Dale Thompson conducts weekly
group obedience training sessions.
Everyone seems to like
the dogs. It is difficult to find a staff member who
does not have a desk drawer full of bones and biscuits.
gives the inmates a feeling of responsibility and the chance to give
back to society,' says Williams.
'I fell in love'
agrees. 'I didn't think I had any compassion left in me,' he
says. 'But when
I received one of the first dogs in the program, a brindle
boxer pup named
Brin, I fell in love as soon as they laid her in my arms.'
the fragile puppy across the prison yard to his cellblock, his
compassion mixed with anxiety.
'I was anxious, because I thought guys would think I was soft,' he
continues, 'and I was afraid for her safety.'
when he got to his cellblock, the men all gathered around. They
to get too close as well, to show that they cared about
Roberson put the puppy on the ground, and she started to
run and jump. Men laughed and reached out to touch her.
the coldest and most hateful man on the block dropped to the
floor and rolled around with the pup laughing, Roberson knew that
everything was going to be OK.
'Always there wagging her tail'
One year and five
dogs later, he received Star. While many of the dogs
in the program
were abused, untrained, and skittish, it was apparent that
Star had once
been somebody's pet. She was housebroken, unafraid of
noises of the prison, and knew the 'sit' command. Over the
next seven weeks, Roberson worked on her leash and obedience
training. She was severely undernourished, so he made sure she
returned to a healthy
weight with food provided by the Humane Society.
And over the weeks, their bond grew stronger.
matter what you've done or what kind of day you've had, she's
there wagging her tail and giving kisses,' Roberson says as he
rubs Star on the head.
'She loves me no matter what problems I have.'
Star and Roberson share their cellblock with 180 other men and one
dog. Prisoners in the wood shop build the cages that fit in the
10 by 10 foot cell. At Christmas, some 600 inmates paid $2.50
have their picture taken with Star or one of the 15 other dogs
on the grounds, wearing Santa caps and posing in front of painted
backdrops. The money raised went into a fund for Amish-made
leather collars and leashes.
Weekends with guard
Schlaeg volunteered to co-train Star, taking her home on
weekends and introducing her to a very different environment -- of
children, cars, malls and the great outdoors.
She was so
smitten with the dog, that when it came time for Star to be
adopted, Schlaeg jumped at the chance herself.
She met Roberson in the prison office to take Star to her new life.
Roberson knelt next to Star, and rubbed her all over.
'He was so gentle with
her,' Schlaeg explains. 'Just like she was his child.'
'He told her, 'Now
you be a good girl. You remember everything I taught
you. You're going to a good home where people will love you.''
Waiting for another dog
with emotion, Roberson gave her one last hug, then rose and walked away.
'Now get her outta here,' he said, choking back tears.
Roberson seeks Schlaeg out to ask how she and the dog
are doing. Schlaeg hopes to be able to
bring Star back inside for a visit someday.
And after several weeks alone,
Roberson is waiting for a new dog to love and train.
'What I did on the outside,
it's something I have to accept to keep going in here,' Roberson says.
'But I've come to learn that life is so precious. I know that now.'
'Let us reforms our schools, and we shall
find little reform needed in our prisons.'
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
America deserves an amnesty.
Americans deserve an amnesty.
Call for the amnesty.
Amnesty International USA
P.O. Box 37137
Washington, D.C. 20013
Yeshua ben Joseph is reported to have said :
"The power of life and death are in the tongue."
'A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength
to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.'
-- Christopher Reeve
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