The prison complex south of Boise is home to more than 7,000 inmates and 80 dogs. Canines live in four of the prisons in the complex as part of the Inmate Dog Alliance Project of Idaho. Other dogs patrol the 65-acre, 1.5-mile perimeter around the Idaho State Correctional Institution. All are thriving, whether they’re receiving training to become good family pets or helping secure the prison grounds.
DISCIPLINE, POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
The Inmate Dog Alliance Project of Idaho is a partnership between the Idaho Humane Society and the Idaho Department of Correction created in 2004. In the past 11 years, it has put more than 1,500 hard-to-place shelter dogs in cells to be trained by inmates. Most of the dogs were adopted by owners eager to have a house-trained dog with social skills, manners and even a few tricks to perform. The program has been a boon for inmates, too.
“This is a volunteer program. That’s what makes it cool. It makes my time go by so much quicker,” said Loyal Williams, an inmate at the Idaho State Correctional Institution for two years who has trained nine shelter dogs.
Most inmate trainers admit to working with one or two dogs who stole their hearts. Williams still thinks about a 5-year-old cattle dog he trained: “He was my buddy. I would have loved to take him fishing.”
He values IDAPI for what it’s teaching him about patience and responsibility while giving him job skills he hopes to use when he gets out of prison. The idea that shelter dogs, like some inmates, have had rough lives isn’t lost on him.
“For these dogs, it’s kind of like us,” he said. “This program is their last chance. Some people here are on their last chance of coming out of the system.”
Helping transform a dog no one wants into a dog potential owners will stand in line for is a good feeling.
“It’s hard to describe. You have to be in my shoes. But the feeling is indescribable. It really is,” Williams said.
Warden Keith Yordy said the IDAPI program is a positive thing inside the prison walls. Even inmates not in the program know about it and tell their family about it.
“Inmates take pride in believing they’re keeping these dogs alive. Which they are,” Yordy said.
The program is voluntary. Inmates don’t get paid, apart from an annual appreciation party with pizza or doughnuts. Still, it’s one of the most desirable work assignments at the prison. Staffers tell stories of one inmate who asked to delay his parole so he could finish working with a particular dog.
“We screen applicants hard,” Yordy said. “We look for someone who has good communication skills, stays out of trouble, has a compassion for animals and can take direction. Some offenders are not the best at that.” Any inmate with a history of cruelty to animals is barred.
Dogs live in cells with inmates. They receive instruction and training every day. They trot loose through the tier. Detailed whiteboards list dog names and training regimens. A photograph and description of each dog hangs on the wall outside the cell of his or her trainer.
Longtime dog trainer John McLaughlin, on staff at the Idaho Humane Society, teaches inmates to work with the dogs. He works on the principle of positive reinforcement when training the dogs, but never at the expense of routine, discipline and order.
“I’m not a therapist. But a lot of what we do when training dogs carries over to kids and what they need,” McLaughlin said. “It makes sense that it would carry over to inmates, too.”
‘DEAD DOGS WALKING’
In this age of high-tech prison security, the Idaho Department of Correction uses a low-tech way to keep inmates inside the prison and scoundrels from trying to pass contraband or weapons from the outside: dogs.
And not just any dogs. Dogs that had been served a death sentence, but were given a second chance ... and a job.
“These are dead dogs walking,” Yordy said.
All day, every day, dogs patrol the prison.
The area between the two chain-link and razor-wire fences surrounding the prison complex is partitioned into 24 sections. Each dog patrols a section, on its own, without a human handler.
Typically, each dog works one day on the south perimeter, one day on the north perimeter and then has one day of rest and relaxation in the “barn,” a large heated building with individual kennels.
Each of the 41 sentry dogs has a “book” detailing its special needs and quirks. Gypsy, for example, will not go through the gate to her patrol area unless her handlers first pet her on the head. Rufus will only eat his food if it is placed on his bed. Neiko has a complex relationship with his pet rock.
Yes, a rock.
“Neiko does not go to work unless he has a rock. He picks a specific special rock that he likes and he’ll keep usually a rock for a month,” said primary dog handler Officer Alexa Tam. “It is just a rock that he has a relationship with. It is like his imaginary friend. ... He talks to it and they play together. The rock is his best friend.”
The prison recently spent $9,000 to build 24 windproof insulated doghouses with roofed porches.
In the desert south of Boise, summers are hot, winters are cold and the wind blows almost constantly. The dogs need protection from the elements while on duty.
“We need to take care of them and respect them for the service they provide us,” Yordy said.
These dogs are not the cream of the crop. They are not expensive or highly trained purebreds from renowned breeders. Quite the opposite. They are anti-social, aggressive, loners and misfits. They do not play well with others.
Paws, a 170-pound mastiff, bit the ear off a 5-year-old boy. Gypsy, a Rottweiler, killed livestock. Al, a mixed breed, killed another dog.
“Many of them were destined for being put down,” Yordy said.
The prison gets some of the dogs through the Idaho Humane Society, others referred from veterinarians who keep an eye out for dogs slated to be euthanized that may be worthy of a second chance as a sentry dog.
These dogs get a life sentence instead of a death sentence. “They are in prison. They have done something to where they cannot be with families. They are not adoptable. They cannot be a family pet. ... They do their time here,” Tam said.
The traits that make these dogs bad pets make them good sentry dogs — territorial, aggressive and really loud.
“We like barkers,” Yordy said.
IDOC’s sentry dog program is one of the few, if not the only, such program in the nation, Yordy said. Once popular, sentry dogs have been replaced with electrified fences. With a price tag approaching $5 million, such fences are prohibitively expensive.
Using sentry dogs is low-tech and old school. And highly successful.
“In the 30 years that we have had the dogs we have never had an inmate try to escape through the fence where a dog was posted,” Yordy said.
In 1990, three inmates did escape by cutting through a section of fence that had been sectioned off from the dogs for maintenance. The escapees did not get far; a tower guard’s bullet felled one, and the other two quickly gave up.
“That really hammered home to us that these dogs really are effective,” Yordy said.
The program is relatively inexpensive — about $100,000 annually, much less than the cost of adding more towers, guards, lights, sensors or electrified fences.
In winter, the prison is often enshrouded in fog and tower guards can’t always see the fence. They rely on the dogs to sound the alarm if anyone approaches.
The dogs are attuned to any change in their routine. If Tam does anything out of the ordinary or goes on vacation, or if another officer comes in the canine area, the dogs act up, Tam said.
“I believe the dogs know they have a purpose. It is a job for them. When they go from the K9 area to the fence line they know they are going to work. It is their calling,” Yordy said.