At one-of-a-kind animal shelter in Louisiana, prison inmates bond with dogs rescued from Korea’s meat trade
Last month, 10 dogs rescued by our Humane Society International responders from a Korean dog meat farm arrived at a special animal shelter near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Pen Pals, Inc. is housed at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, and it is the only prison-based animal shelter in the world. After landing there, these fortunate dogs began receiving training and socialization from inmate participants that will help them secure loving homes with adoptive families.
I’ve been following their story with great excitement, because it’s a story of converging paths, one that knits together two programs of particular importance to me and my colleagues.
The Pen Pals program, which emerged from our collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections during Hurricane Katrina, has become a permanent fixture of the East Feliciana Parish animal care infrastructure. Over the years, it has trained and placed hundreds of dogs and cats, and has become an inspiration to those seeking to introduce dog training programs within correctional facilities across the country. The work they are doing is good for animals and it is good for people, and that’s what we’re all about at the Humane Society of the United States and HSI.
The HSUS has helped fund Pen Pals since 2008, paying for construction of the shelter, which features a 4,200-square-foot clinic with a surgery suite, an education area and room for 60 dogs and 34 cats. A 9,450-square-foot pavilion area nearby can house as many as 300 animals during disasters.
Nine inmates staff the shelter under the supervision of Corrections Colonel John C. Smith at Dixon. Community volunteers and veterinarians from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine help care for, treat, and adopt the animals out in various communities in the vicinity of Baton Rouge. The inmates build strong relationships with the dogs they are helping, and they are fully involved in the day-to-day care of the dogs. They feed the dogs, clean them, check for diseases, help administer treatment, and provide basic obedience and socialization training. They also weigh in on the fateful decision concerning the animals’ readiness for adoption to permanent homes with Louisiana residents who appreciate the chance to take in canine graduates of the program.
Pen Pals, Inc. has transformed the lives of its human participants. One of the inmates who welcomed the Korea dogs, Joshua Fleetwood, has been at Dixon for eight years. He hopes to become a veterinary technician upon his release in three years, and credits his experience as a dog handler for giving him new direction and goals. “I thought I knew a lot about dogs until I started the program,” Fleetwood told a local TV reporter. “It teaches you patience. You can’t be overly assertive. You have to let them break through their own shell on their own time.”
Fleetwood, who is incarcerated for drug possession and robbery, says that his involvement with Pen Pals has taught him something else, “that it’s not always about you. There are other dogs, cats, people that you have to be cognizant about when you make decisions on how you behave on a daily basis,” he said.
Fleetwood and the other inmates, who care for 40 to 60 animals at any one time, have found the newcomers wary. But they have the time they need to socialize the animals well, and it won’t be long before these dogs will join the hundreds of other animals adopted out by Pen Pals since 2010.
We remain immensely proud of our collaboration with the corrections community in Louisiana on Pen Pals, Inc., and we’ve watched with satisfaction the growth of prison-based dog training programs in other places. These programs take various forms and generally involve partnerships with local animal care and rescue organizations. They’re becoming more and more popular as corrections officials take account of the beneficial impacts of such programs on inmates, and humane workers see the potential for boosting adoption rates and placement through appropriate socialization of animals before they leave the custody of shelters and rescue groups.
The transformational value of our dog rescue campaign in South Korea is drawing headlines around the world, not least because it involves helping the farmers who raise dogs for the meat trade to shift to better and more humane livelihoods. In effect, the campaign redeems them from the animal cruelty and suffering for which they are responsible. The redemptive potential of programs like Pen Pals, for both people and animals, is also clear, bringing inmates emotional satisfaction, feelings of self-efficacy and a sense of mission, and ensuring the best possible outcomes for animals in need. To see these programs come together, even if for just a moment in time, does us all the same kind of good.