Program Brings Hope to Inmates and Animals at Roxbury Correctional Institution
01/19/2013
The Herald-Mail

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They were innocent and rejected animals, abandoned and abused.

Some came from puppy mills, others were left to starve and freeze in the dead of winter. When they finally were saved, their rescuers sent them to receive care in the unlikeliest of places — a prison.

Carefully screened and selected inmates at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown have taken mistreated dogs under their wings, nurturing them back to health and preparing them for adoption to a good home through the HOPE Dogs program of the Central Pennsylvania Animal Alliance.

HOPE — an acronym for Hounds of Prison Education — kicked off in 2005 at the State Correctional Institution in Camp Hill, Pa. Since then, more than 150 dogs have been “paroled” out to homes, program coordinator Kelly McGinley said. HOPE launched the second branch at Roxbury in October 2012.

“The program began in response to the needs of overwhelmed foster homes and the need for specialized care and intensive rehab,” she said. “Dogs with extreme issues need tons of socialization or tons of rehab before they can go to a home.”

Erin Julius, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said selected inmates have both the time and the dedication necessary for such attention. At the same time, Julius said, the program promotes a concept she referred to as “restorative justice,” which encourages inmates to take responsibility for their actions.

“Animal programs are a good way of teaching inmates empathy,” she said. “It can have an impact on helping spur them to think about what they did in the context of how it affected others. A lot will tell you this is the first time they have done something good and given back in a really tangible way.”

Ten inmates and five dogs currently are enrolled in HOPE at Roxbury. Several dogs already have come and gone, having been adopted successfully, said Mark Vernarelli, public information director for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.      

Julius said handlers are medium-security inmates who meet conduct requirements and whose records do not include animal or child abuse, sex offense or domestic violence. They reside in a special housing unit with single cells, where dogs stay with them in a crate.

In addition to providing care and training for the dogs, inmates write weekly journal entries for them that are posted online at hopedogs.org. Interested readers can apply to adopt the animals.

“They write about what’s going well, about barriers to adoption, and they include funny things that will keep people’s attention,” McGinley said.

Professional dog trainer Karol Kennedy provides weekly education and coaching to the inmates, addressing topics such as basic obedience, socialization, behavior modification and one-on-one attention. Kennedy said she is impressed by the inmate handlers’ commitment to training the dogs well so they can be adopted.

“They spend 24 hours a day with those dogs. They live in cells with them,” she said. “When you see how they interact with the dogs, how much they care and how excited and sad they are when they get a good home, it’s life changing. It changes their lives. It obviously changes the dogs’ lives.”

Kennedy said a Jack Russell mix named Jack was adopted after being trained and cared for by an inmate whom she described as “big, cold, bruiser-looking.” The inmate asked Kennedy how the dog was doing in his new home.

“When he heard the dog was happy and doing well, he had tears in his eyes,” she said. “He talked about what a cuddler Jack was, and even saved one of his blankets because he was so enamored.”

Kennedy said the inmate hopes to pursue dog training when he is released from prison.

Some Roxbury dogs attended a meet-and-greet Saturday afternoon at PetSmart in Hagerstown, where HOPE workers accepted applications for adoption. 

Among the dogs were Reno, a 4-year-old American Eskimo; Rusty, a 2-year-old Beagle who survived a run-in with a porcupine; and Charlie, a 6-year-old stray who Kennedy said used to be “afraid of everything,” but eventually become “the social butterfly of the cell block.”

Between 40 and 45 people attended Saturday’s meet-and-greet session, said Cindy Minaya, a program volunteer. She said at least one couple was interested in adopting one of the dogs.

For more information about HOPE Dogs, call McGinley at 717-379-2511.