It has been said, by many an activist and politician, that our jails and prisons are a revolving door. To an extent, it’s a true statement.
I have known people who have been released from jail, or La Tuna, only to find their way back into the system in short order. Boredom, and punishment do take their toll on an individual who finds themselves incarcerated.
Corrections.com explains, “Inactivity and boredom take a toll… Responsible conduct is not encouraged; we do not trust our prisoners to act responsibly. Their conduct in prison is judged by whether they have obeyed prison rules, not whether they are capable of navigating in the outside world.”
However there is a program in El Paso County that is working to give structure, training, rehabilitation, and a sense of accomplishment to local inmates. I became aware of the Pets Advancing Wellness and Success (PAWS) program being run by the El Paso County Detention Facility – Annex a few years ago, as I found myself detained there.
Unlike other jails, the deputies in El Paso, wear many hats. The PAWS program is just another aspect of their desire to help inmates grow; it’s also the only program like this to be found in any jail in the country.
In early 2014, Sheriff Richard Wiles, in collaboration with Animal Rescue, started a vocational program which helps dogs find their forever homes. However, the program, does more than help the dogs. It also helps the inmates involved in the program. PAWS, is one of those programs with lofty aims.
I met with Lt. Hebeker, of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, and Loretta Hyde, of the Animal Rescue League of El Paso, and they took me through the aims, and goals of the program. Each of them seemed like proud parents, wanting to help the dogs and the inmates as well.
Each morning, Officers Ortega and Ogaz pick-up the inmates from the trusty POD – a specific area of the jail – and head off to the kennels. The dogs wait, tails wagging, yapping and barking.
Just like the trustees who work with them, the dogs are read to start their day.
Lt. Hebeker, and Loretta Hyde have both said that the dogs they train are throwaways. They are dogs that no one wants any longer.
People see these little puppies, and want to take them home. Then, they grow up.
“Lack of manners,” is one of the reasons they are abandoned. They dig, jump, chew. They act like playful dogs. Animals that received no structure when they were puppies.
Many of the inmates at the Annex have had similar lives. They grew up, without structure, or parental involvement in their lives. Almost regardless of their ages, they seem just like children in the bodies of grown men. The time I spent as an inmate in the Annex, that was all I could see.
Lt. Hebeker said there is one group of inmates that can benefit the most from working with the dogs in the PAWS program, that can reconnect with what it is like to have to care for another living being: men who do not pay their child support.
“Everybody changes, from the four-legged, to the two-legged,” says Loretta. “Everybody has a different perspective one what it is to be a dog owner, (the) responsibility, and the unconditional love the dogs give them.”
I asked both Lt. Hebeker, and Officer Oraz what they hoped to give to the inmates, what they hope they will learn.
“Having been in the Marine Corp,” said Officer Oraz. “I try to give them structure, responsibility, and a sense of purpose.” Those three principals are lacking in the lives of most inmates. For someone to want to help another embrace these principles, especially within a correctional setting, is almost unheard of.
These officers genuinely care about the inmates in their custody, and it shows.
Lt. Hebeker said they work to demonstrate how commitment and motivation can bring positive results such as graduating from their program, as well as the other unexpected rewards such as gaining the affection and love from the canine cadets, and a sense of accomplishment when the dogs they trained graduate from the program.
So what exactly are the dogs, and the trustees in this program learning? It is, from the inmate point of view, simply a way to get out of the pod? Or is there more. After talking with one of individuals who went through the program, I can tell you, there is a lot more to it than just a way for the inmates to pass the time.
The individuals – called trustees – who are in the program learn a variety of skills that they can take with them when they are released. They are learning how to train the dogs who come into the PAWS program, clean and sanitize they kennels, care for the sick, treat minor injuries, and bring dogs back to full health.
The program’s duration is 250 hours. There are also a battery of tests, five written and one visual, the inmates must take and pass before they can graduate.
Beyond the PAWS program, the same inmates must also attend other programs as well. If they are without a high school diploma, they will be required to attend GED classes twice a week. If they are not proficient in English, then it is ESL. There are also job readiness classes they must attend to remain part of the program.
The dogs themselves gain much from the PAWS training program. They learn basic commands, become leash trained, and bad habits are removed. They become the perfect dog for anyone looking for a companion. So much so that the group, American Service Dogs, evaluates them after the program. Many of them have, in fact, become service dogs.
In talking with David Chura about the PAWS program he says programs like PAWS are invaluable.
“Although there are some programs that teach inmates work skills and how to be responsible – such as building maintenance or food service training – the value of such programs as PAWS is that they reconnect individuals with their basic sense of being human, of being a caring person. These programs help unearth and develop feelings and skills that in many cases are almost atrophied in individuals who have been involved in crime and who are used to life on the streets.”
I met with Raul (name has been changed). He went through the program back in 2015. His story, like many of those I heard in the jail, are similar. He grew-up in a single parent home. Didn’t have any real role models other than those he found in music, and gangster movies.
“Never had that real love,” he said. “How could anything love me.” Then, he signed-up for the PAWS program.
At first, he was looking for a way to receive a reduced sentence, thinking that participating in the PAWS program would look good for the Judge. Yet, there were changes to his way of thinking. Changes he readily admits.
“These dogs is like children. They need us for all of it. The just gave us love.”
That was the first time, Raul says, that he ever knew unconditional love. “I liked going to the dogs. They were happy to see us. I liked it.”
Like others who have participated in the program, Raul adopted the one of the dogs.
“They do care, not just only the dogs, the police as well.” Raul is right. The officers of the El Paso County Detention Facility do care. I had asked Lt. Hebeker if there was anything she wanted to say, to share with me. What she shared was not so much about the program, as it was about the dog and inmates in the PAWS program.
“I would like to see people hire our graduates. They could work for a vet’s office. They know what to do, and how to do it. They are qualified, trained, and motivated.”
She’s right. These men are motivated to better their lives, and the lives of their families. Just like the dogs are ready to become part of your family.
So, if you are looking for a dog to adopt, contact Loretta at the Animal Rescue League of El Paso. If you are looking for a motivated employee for your office- be it to work with four legged friends, or the two legged kind- maybe you can give Lt. Hebeker a call, and she may be able to point you in the right direction.