DAYTONA BEACH – Standing near several prison inmates, Corrections Officer Gail Irwin smiled and said she’d often witnessed a great example of felons whose personality had undergone a remarkable transformation – all for the better.
“Convicted felons become little teddy bears,” Irwin said. “It changes them.”
Irwin, a corrections officer at the Tomoka Correctional Institution, a work camp in Daytona Beach, helps supervise a program that the prison adopted about two years ago, that entrusts the inmates with a unique challenge. In a partnership with the West Volusia Kennel Club and the Halifax Humane Society, Tomoka operates Prison Pups N Pals, a program that transfer dogs from a humane shelter to the prison, where the inmates are taught to train the dogs to be more obedient and friendlier to people. The idea is to make the dogs easier to adopt since they no longer fear being around people, while the inmates pick up a work skill they can use after they serve their sentence.
“We’ve got inmates who got out of here and into animal shelters as jobs,” Irwin said. “It’s been going great.”
This morning, officials at Tomoka held a graduation ceremony for the ten dogs – Amelia, Bud, Buster, Ceaser, Charlie, Duke, Poncho, Peanut Butter, Remi and Speck – that participated in the seven-week program in this latest round. At the same time, the prison’s warden, Monroe Barnes, handed certificates to the 18 inmates who provided the obedience training to the dogs.
“We’re very proud of this,” Barnes said. “What we’re doing is giving a dog and an inmate a second chance. We give one of God’s creatures another chance, and that’s important to us.”
That’s quite true, said Allyn Weigel, who runs the West Volusia Kennel Club.
“This is probably the greatest part of the program, to see at the end how many of them do well,” he said of both the inmates and the dogs. “That’s the advantage of having internal cooperation, and having good men with a good attitude, because without a good attitude this program wouldn’t be possible.”
The dogs that end up at the shelter are most often badly abused or neglected, and so afraid of people that it’s difficult to find a family willing to adopt them, said Amy Carotenuto, the animal care director at the Halifax Humane Society.
“This program has definitely become a great partnership for everyone involved,” she said. “The program obviously increases the adoption rate of the animals.”
Carotenuto said she’s also seen the way that it improves the morale of the inmates.
“For the gentlemen involved in the program who are going through a rough chapter in their lives, the dogs are also going through a rough chapter in their lives,” Carotenuto said. “We hope the program is life changing for everyone involved. I think we really make a great team.”
It also helps rescue dogs that could otherwise be euthanized, Weigel said.
“That was the original mission of this, to bring the dogs out of the West End Kennel and bring them to a prison and train the men,” he said.
As for the inmates, “The fields that they can go into, I think will be wonderful,” Weigel said.
“It’s not the dogs,” added Marjorie Bloomquist, who also works at the West Volusia Kennel Club, “It’s the cooperation of the men who work together. They do an excellent, excellent job.”
The inmates who participated in Pups N Pals and accepted their certificates agreed that it had been a highly beneficial and positive experience for them as they continue to serve their prison sentence.
“I just appreciate the opportunity to be in this program,” said Ronald Redmond, who is serving a three year sentence for possession of a controlled substance, while fellow inmate Ryan Ryder, who is serving nine years for grand theft and burglary, added, “I’d like to thank the prison for giving me the chance to be here.”
Christopher Lafata, who is serving a 10 year sentence for racketeering and money laundering, helped train Remi.
“She’s very smart and playful at times,” he said. “Everyone put a lot of time and effort into the dogs, especially this time around.”
Robert Ramos, who is serving 15 years for robbery with a gun, trained a bulldog named Duke.
“Working with Duke was a very good experience for me,” he said. “I’d never worked with a dog like this before. He looks mean, but he’s really a very lovable dog.”
Ivan Izquierdo, who is serving 12 years for drug trafficking and helps supervise the program, said his fellow inmates who took part in this, the 9th Pups N Pals program, deserve a lot of credit for the hard work they put into it.
“I always like to thank the guys,” he said, “because they do a great job.”
The assistant warden, Angela Gordon, also noted that if anyone wanted to adopt one of the graduating dogs, several still needed homes.
“I am happy to say five out of the 10 dogs have already been adopted,” Gordon said. “If anyone knows someone who wants to adopt a dog, we have five wonderful puppies looking for a home.”
To learn more about adopting one of the dogs, contact the Halifax Humane Society at 2363 LPGA Boulevard in Daytona Beach, call 386-274-4703, or log on to halifaxhumanesociety.org.
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