Twelve maximum security inmates, seven community volunteers, and five puppies. This is the group of dedicated individuals making up the Canine Partners for Life (CPL) training program in SCI Greene Maximum Security Prison.
The non-profit program enables inmates in Pennsylvania and Maryland to train prospective service dogs for 12-18 months inside the prison before the pups move on to formal training at the Canine Partners for Life headquarters.
After graduating from the two-year program the service dogs go on to assist the handicapped or mentally disabled. Over the course of their 26-year existence Canine Partners for Life has placed over 650 service dogs in 45 states across America.
The process begins in Cochranville, PA where the CPL team breeds, trains, and cares for dozens of service dogs a year. At 8-weeks old the new pups are transferred to their respective prison facilities around Pennsylvania (eight participating prisons) and Maryland (two participating prison).
The dogs are impeccably trained, reacting instantly to commands given by their handlers. Treats were placed on the floor to tempt them out of position. No one budges, and the exercise concludes with zero mistakes. Expressions of pride and approval can be seen upon the inmate's faces. It is clear they take their work seriously.
When training concludes at 10:30am, the inmates are sent back to their respective prison blocks. Ralph and Stephen live in Block K with Nike. The two men ambled back across the large barbed-wire lined quad, occasionally stopping to let Nike sniff something.
Arriving at their cell, Nike has one last task to complete before moving on to her next stage of training. She must get inside her crate and stay there without making a sound for two full minutes. Ralph walks Nike to her crate and we all leave the room as Erica starts her watch. 30 seconds. Silence. One minute. Not a sound. One minute 30 seconds. Still nothing. Two minutes. Nike is home free. Ralph walks over to the cage, rewarding her with a pat on the head.
Canine Partners for Life is a non-profit organization that charges nothing for their services. Each of their dogs cost an estimated $30,000 to fully train and comes with lifetime support. After matching you with a service dog, they request a donation of $1-$3,000, or less than 10% of their investment.
CPL receives no federal funding and acquires their 1.8 million dollar yearly budget through private donations. Their new kennels can hold around 28-30 dogs, but the prisons play an integral role in training the newborn pups during their adolescent months.
"The program is a win-win-win for everyone involved," said Jennifer Swank, the CPL Prison Program Coordinator. It benefits CPL by giving us well trained puppies, benefits the puppies’ future recipients, and benefits the correctional institution as a whole.”