Inmate program trains dogs for service

Female inmates work with ICAN to train dogs for service.
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Some of Indiana's most notorious prison inmates are quietly doing something you would never expect to see behind razor wire. It's an unlikely story of hope to tell, a win-win-win of some very unusual partners who are changing lives, including their own.

Twice a year, disabled, men, women and children come to a tree-lined campus on the west side of Indianapolis for a boot camp on service dogs. There's training, touching and bonding.

But these aren't just any dog handlers. They live behind razor wire in a maximum security prison.

For two weeks every year, the clients who will get the dogs come inside the Indiana Women's Prison to work all day every day with the trainers - the inmates.

Sally Irvin, founder of Indiana Canine Assistant Network (ICAN), says people are often surprised.

"You might get someone who says really? Prison?" she said. "These inmates would put many trainers on the outside who do this for a profession up for a challenge"

Puppies work their way through three prisons, learning specialized skills from the inmate handlers. ICAN is one of just two service dog programs in the country in full-time partnership with prisons.

Irvin says a match made in prison is a win-win of responsibility and accountability for both client and inmate. And it starts with the prisoner screening process.

"Toward the end of the inmate interview, I'll ask them, ‘Tell me how you got here.' It's the answer to that question that will get them in or not," Sally says.

Rheann Kelly is serving a 65-year sentence for murder.

"It's refreshing to be able to interact with people that aren't seeing me for my crime," Rheann says. "They're seeing me for this dog."

Rheann represents freedom to 10-year-old Josiah Scheller, who has waited two years for Kit.

"Ever since we met, I thought she would be mine," Josiah exclaims.

Rheann explains Kit's likes and dislikes to Josiah.

"You'll hear sometimes when you lay on her, she'll do a kind of grunty moan just to let you know she's liking it," Rheann says.

When Josiah lays down his head on the dog, he does it.

"There's no pill that's going to cure him of his disability," Josiah's mother Susie says. "But the dogs are love in motion."

Melinda Loveless is a senior trainer in the ICAN program. But the name Loveless is a lightning rod.

Twenty years ago, she orchestrated the torture murder of 12-year-old Shanda Sharer. Now 36, Melinda raises Angel in Shanda's memory and Odle, as a courtroom assistance dog for abused and traumatized children.

"These children have to go to court. They have to face this person who did this to them, this monster. Okay, that was me," Melinda says. "Odle comes in and they're gonna sit with him, hug him to make it easier for them."

Melinda has the blessing of her victim's mother, Jacque Vaught, in this work.

"I think the rehabilitation has worked," Jacque says. "Maybe that's what it took for her to understand what she did to my child."

The dog handlers at the Indiana Women's Prison live together in a separate building on campus.

Cindy White, 36 years into a life sentence, is the longest-serving female inmate in the state for taking six lives.

"Now I am changing lives for the good," Cindy says." I am giving back. I am telling them I have helped train this dog and it is going to change your life."

It already changed hers. Cindy has lost 100 pounds. But the biggest growth comes in the letting go. Inmates watch as their dogs bond with their new owners, like Miguel, a veteran. Yankee can open doors, flip lights, retrieve and help Miguel balance on wobbly legs.

The client hand-off happens at graduation, after nine months of "graduate school" at the women's prison. It's a parade of laughter, tears and transition.

Dog handler Lara Campbell is a former IU music school student, sentenced to 55 years on felony murder.

"My dog has provided smiles for me when I didn't think I could smile again," Lara says. "She provided unconditional love when I didn't think I had a friend."

Lara punctuates her feelings by singing a song at the ICAN graduation to a room of tearful handlers.

"For I was lost, but now I am free," Lara sings. "Because I believe in you and you in me."

There is a two-year waiting list for the dogs. The cost to clients is just $1,300, which is subsidized with donations and far less than the actual cost. The inmates emerge with skills that can help them land veterinary jobs when they get out of prison. The effect on self-esteem, both on the clients and the inmates, is measurable.