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Prison Pooches

Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington and North Beach PAWS have partnered to launch Freedom Tails, a first-of-its-kind program to benefit offenders, families and four-legged friends.
Written by Brandie Ahlgren | Photography by Tushna Lehman
“I’m headed to prison,” I quipped to one of my colleagues as I ran out the door. “Literally!” I was on my way to the Freedom Tails graduation ceremony at Stafford Creek Corrections Center (SCCC) in Aberdeen, Wash. Freedom Tails brings in shelter dogs that might otherwise be euthanized, and pairs them with inmates who train each dog, starting with simple potty training if needed, then socialization and obedience.

Today’s graduating dogs, once deemed unadoptable for whatever reason, are going home with their new forever families. It’s bittersweet, because even though all of the dogs have been adopted, it also means the inmates must say goodbye to their constant companions. Each dog lives and trains with their trainer and handler (two inmates per dog), 24 hours a day, seven days a week for eight weeks total. And, it shows. Today’s graduation ceremony is when the inmates get to showcase their skills and of course, the dogs’ skills. It begins with a parade around the room, with dog and trainer stopping periodically to show off commands like “sit,” “stay” and “come.”

The dogs, 16 in all, are amazingly calm, intently focused on their trainer while their new families watch in awe. After the “parade,” each inmate introduces the dog and shares a story or two. Stories like, “Emma is the first dog ever in my life; she humanized me.” Or the story about Grizzley, a fellow inmate who was totally antisocial, never speaking to anyone. “My dog ran from me and as I rounded the corner, I found Grizzley down on one knee petting the dog and laughing. I would let Grizzley pet him every day. Eventually, Grizzley came out of his shell, playing chess and talking with fellow inmates...these dogs change our lives.” And lastly, one inmate shares about his dog Cooper, “I’m going to miss him.”

The Freedom Tails program is coveted by prisoners and appreciated by staff. Talking with one of the guards, he makes a point of telling me the infraction rate among inmates in the program is minimal to none. It’s also all-volunteer, meaning the prisoners are not paid for their time in the Freedom Tails program like other prison programs. The staff also donates much of their time and several are proud parents of past graduating pooches. At the graduation, every inmate makes a point of thanking the families—for without the families to adopt the dogs, there would be no Freedom Tails.

Watching the inmates work so skillfully with their dogs and witnessing how well behaved the dogs are, I ask head trainer, Deb Thomas Blake, if the inmates receive any prior training before entering the program. She says, “They don’t. It’s baptism by fire.” However, inmates are heavily screened before being accepted. They must submit an application first, then interview with a correctional unit supervisor, and violent offenders (domestic violence, assault, predators) need not apply.

While enjoying the ceremony, one word comes to mind: redemption. It’s a day of redemption for dog and trainer, each proudly showing off their accomplishments. Both deemed unacceptable by society, locked behind bars, one will go home today because of the other’s loyalty and dedication. Qualities shared by human and canine alike.
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