In East Feliciana Parish in Louisiana, just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi border, there’s a one-of-a-kind animal shelter, run by a prison warden and his team and staffed by some of the men incarcerated there. The shelter, at the medium security Dixon Correctional Institute, came into being 10 years ago when we needed more space for rescued animals in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
I drove up there one day, in search of additional labor and more space in the midst of the crisis, and I had the pleasure of meeting Warden James M. LeBlanc, who is now Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and was then running the state’s entire prison system. The HSUS donated money for supplies and other aspects of animal care, and soon thereafter, donated money for construction materials. The inmates then built the shelter in a parish that had no capacity to take in homeless animals, and a new shelter was born to serve the surrounding community.
Last week, at Animal Care Expo in New Orleans, The HSUS and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association announced an additional donation (a three-year, $150,000 grant) in support of this unique institution, the world’s only animal shelter located on the grounds of a prison. There, inmates will continue to work to socialize animals for adoption in neighboring communities, and help to provide animal care services for East Feliciana Parish. The prison and its associated non-profit organization, Pen Pals, Inc., takes animals out for adoption events and supports veterinary care and wellness services provided by the Louisiana State University shelter medicine program, another long-term HSUS grant recipient.
I had a chance to speak, in this exclusive video, with DCI’s Colonel John Smith, manager of the program, and he gave an encouraging update on the shelter, which has enjoyed solid support from current warden Darryl Vannoy, former warden Steve Rader, and Secretary LeBlanc.
The benefits for animals in need are obvious in such case. Colonel Smith also told me that in a few short years, this program has changed the lives of the inmates involved, who immensely enjoy working with the animals and giving them a second chance. The dogs and cats make no judgments about the inmates—they’re just glad to get the attention, the food and shelter, and the playtime.
It was more than 90 years ago that the animal-friendly Maine Governor Percival Baxter, who was convinced of the human-animal bond, sent a dog to live with inmates at the newly built Lewiston prison. The dog, named Governor, was a participant in the first recorded prisoners and pets program. I share the hope of everyone associated with the DCI program that it too will come to be seen as a pioneering initiative that others can emulate, taking advantage of the massive labor pool at our prisons and helping draw out the natural compassion that’s in just about every one of us.