Inmates at Kershaw Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison, are training Labrador Retrievers to assist physically challenged individuals, teachers and counselors as well as children with autism.
Josh Gelinas, Communications Director with the South Carolina Department of Corrections says he’s heard no negative criticism regarding the program. “On the inside it’s been a great boost for the inmates who are participating. It boosts morale and it gives them a sense of accomplishments. More importantly in the larger sense of things it’s created something that inmates want to be a part of.”
Gelinas also emphasized, “It’s encouraging good disciplinary behavior by other inmates in the prison who want to get in. That’s been a good thing for us.”
Professional trainers from Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services (PAALS) work with inmates to properly teach the dogs basic cues and how to care for the dogs. PAALS Executive Director Jennifer Rogers founded the organization.
Kershaw Warden Ceclia Reynolds connected with the PAALS and says the dogs are an inspiration to the inmate trainers. “It’s not so much about a companionship thing as it is a responsibility thing. They have to take on a lot of responsibility to take care of these dogs. The dogs live in their cells and go everywhere the inmates go with the exception of the cafeteria.”
Reynolds explains that it’s a really tough approval process for an inmate to be chosen for the program. “They’ll be interviewed. Their disciplinary record is reviewed taking into account their actions inside the prison and outside the prison, as well as what they did to get in here. Once they make their selections, then the social warden, McKay will look at them and screen them more. After that process Jen, from PAALS, will come in and actually interview the inmates.”
Reynolds says the dogs live with inmates Monday through Friday. On weekends, the dogs stay with foster families to adjust to social settings outside of prison. “They get trained for 18 months, just the normal training. Then Jen will select a family that these dogs will go to, and whatever the handicap is for that person, then the advance training will be specifically for the needs of that person.”
Reynolds says utilizing inmates to train the dogs has given PAALS the freedom to expand its services.