Photo by Christy Ash.
It is said that a dog is man’s best friend. But ask any woman who is involved in the Prison Pet Partnership program, and she will tell you a dog is a woman’s best friend as well. For 35 years, women incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women have been partnering with animals to learn new skills and give them a purpose once they are released from prison.
According to Executive Director Beth Rivard, Prison Pet Partnership has been a private nonprofit organization since 1990, but the program originated in the early 1980s as a course offered via Tacoma Community College at Washington Corrections Center for Women.
Its formation was a result of a collaborative effort between Sister Pauline, a Dominican nun, and the late Dr. Leo Bustad, former chair of Washington State University’s veterinary program, who believed that inmate rehabilitation could be facilitated by the human-animal bond.
“Sister Pauline and Bustad worked cooperatively with Washington State University, Tacoma Community College and the Washington State Department of Corrections to create this innovative program within the Washington Corrections Center for Women,” said Rivard.
Unfortunately, the course was cut from the curriculum, but it was then that community members, staff at the prison and inmates opted to make it a nonprofit.
While there are animal programs in many prisons across the country, Rivard said that Prison Pet Partnership is unique in that it is the only program that not only provides the service-dog training from beginning to end (some prisons just do puppy raising or shelter dog training), but also has the vocational education piece of the program that provides job-skill training and assists with job placement upon release. They also offer a scholarship program to assist the inmate with continuing education when released.
Since its beginning, the program has placed more than 700 dogs in the Pacific Northwest. The dogs placed have been service, seizure and therapy dogs as well as companion pets placed with families as “paroled pets.” The program has received national attention, including accolades from the Ford Foundation.
The program’s mission extends far beyond the prison walls. They provide animal-assisted therapeutic visits to local convalescent centers and also bring the dogs to schools to help students improve reading skills by having dogs listen while they read aloud. Those involved with the program also assist the inmate by helping them search for job opportunities in the community in which she will be released.
So just how is money raised for the Prison Pet program? One way is through an app that is benefiting animal rescue operations all over the country. The app, called Walk for a Dog, can be downloaded from Wooftrax.com. Once the app is downloaded, you simply register you and your dog, select a program such as Prison Pet Partnership as your charity, and walk your dog.
“Wooftrax makes a donation to PPP based on the number of walkers and miles walked. It’s an easy and healthy way to help PPP,” said Rivard.
Prison Pet Partnership works with animal shelters and rescue groups for their “train to adopt” program. Dogs are brought into the prison and are provided approximately eight weeks of training by the inmate trainers, then placed for adoption. “Some dogs who demonstrate the temperament for service or therapy work will continue in the training,” said Rivard.
But it is not just dogs that take part in the Prison Pet Partnership program; there are also cats as well. “The majority of these cats are foster cats for Harbor Hope Cat Rescue,” said Rivard.
While the precise numbers have not been tracked since the inception of the program, Rivard does say that since 2007, they have been able to assist 10 women in pet-related jobs upon their release from prison, which is a 100-percent placement rate.
One of those women was released from prison a few years ago and now lives in Spokane. She is a pet groomer and recently purchased her own home. Rivard added, “She is also now a puppy raiser for one of our puppies in training for service work.”
Another woman who was released five years ago is working as a groomer part time and is currently a senior at the University of Washington, where she is on the dean’s list and pursuing her degree in social work.
The partnership is mutually beneficial to both pets and inmates, and the statistics are proof that the effect lasts long after the women leave prison. “The recidivism rate for women who graduate from Prison Pet Partnership is less than five percent,” said Rivard, who adds that the last information she had from the Department of Corrections was that the recidivism rate for women inmates was 21 percent.
The program is a win-win situation for all involved. Enriching the lives of the inmates, the homeless animals and the community, Prison Pet Partnership provides these women with a purpose, inspiring many of them to turn their lives around.