Old dogs learn new tricks in prison

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When Coco entered John Morony Correctional Facility two months ago, few of the other inmates knew how to approach her.

She was a small, wiry girl with dark hair cropped short on her bowed head. She would keep her sad eyes low and tuck her limbs into a compact package as she darted about the prison. Other inmates say she had an uncanny ability to shrink into the shadows that the cell blocks threw over the sun-beaten exercise yard in the north-western suburbs of Sydney.

“We don’t really know why she’s in here,” says fellow inmate, Ali. “We don’t get told. All we know is that she was homeless, really anxious and refused to socialise when she came in.”

Coco is one of more than 1,000 dogs that have lived in prison alongside human inmates like Ali in the past eight years in an innovative program run by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in collaboration with Corrective Services NSW. The program has been running since June 2010 and is the first of its kind in Australia.

Dogs like Coco are picked up off the street, with no known owners and often suffering poor health and fear or aggression issues. Such untrained and sick animals might otherwise suffer a painful end or face compassionate euthanasia to avoid it. But at John Morony Correctional Facility, they get a second chance. Much like the inmates taking care of them.

I drive out to Penrith on a blistering hot Sydney day to meet some of the minimum-security inmates and their trainee pooches in the Dog Rehabilitation Program. It’s 35 degrees when I leave the city and it feels a thousand per cent hotter when I’m led through to the sun-baked exercise yard at John Morony. Caramel-coloured twin puppies splash in a plastic backyard pool as I chat to Ali. I’m pretty jealous of the grinning RSPCA trainer receiving backsplash while supervising the play date.

“This is definitely the best job in prison,” says Ali, who is one of five inmates responsible for caring for Coco’s canine classmates at John Morony. “There are other jobs like working in the library, but working with the dogs is the best. Laundry is the worst.”

“Just the same as on the outside, then,” I laugh.

Abandoned dogs like Coco (pictured) are trained, cared for and re-homed by low-security inmates in the Dog Rehabilitation Program at John Morony Correctional Centre. Credit: Corrective Services NSW.

Ali has been in prison for three years and has at least two years remaining on his sentence for drug possession before he gets a chance at parole. His vascular forearms and thick frame might hint at what he is in for – possession of steroids. But the gentle strokes and calm voice he employs to earn a few wet doggy kisses from Coco belie any tough image you might expect from a drug offender.

“We’ve had some interesting dogs here,” continues Ali. “One was a stray found on the railway line. She was really skinny, she had pups and I don’t know how she was even surviving. She was brought to us and she was really, really fearful. But I spent every single day with her until I had won her over.”

Corrective Services has built 30 new kennels to welcome four-legged inmates like Coco to John Morony. With gum trees hovering over the fences and kookaburras squawking in the distance, it’s certainly a more peaceful environment than most raucous abandoned dog shelters I have been to.

Inmates feed, exercise, train and re-socialise each dog for about two months, before the dogs get their own version of a parole hearing – an assessment by RSPCA trainers. If they pass, the RSPCA returns the dogs to a shelter in Yagoona in Western Sydney to be adopted by members of the public.

Another inmate working in the program, Robert, explains that taking care of the rescued dogs helps lessen the agony of missing his best mate back home. Prison is usually a pretty stiff environment where physical affection like hugging is uncommon. But for Robert, doggy cuddles are a daily perk of working in the program.

“I have a dog on the outside, named Oozie, that I really miss,” Robert tells me. “Taking care of these dogs won’t replace him – but it does make it easier.”

Robert has a congenital hand deformity that means he cradles a short left arm with stumpy fingers on one side. But the dogs don’t seem to mind pats from either hand. Like most animals I have met, they seem to have a sixth sense that makes them protective towards humans that seem sad or vulnerable. Clearly, the dogs are not the only ones being rehabilitated by this program.

Linda Ferrett, the Governor at Outer Metropolitan Multi-Purpose Correctional Centre (the specific facility within John Morony that houses the program), says it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. The dogs get a chance at a better life, while the inmates reap social and psychological benefits, as well as structured training in a nationally recognised animal studies course. The training even helped one former inmate to secure ongoing employment with the RSPCA post-release.

“This program is not just about teaching inmates to pick up dog poo,” says Ferrett, who won Australia’s first inaugural Corrections Medal in May for her work as an officer with Corrective Services for more than three decades.

“The program teaches the inmates structure, responsibility, time-management and self-worth. They have to get out of bed each day to feed, medicate and care for the dogs – regardless how they might be feeling. For many inmates, it’s the first time they have been given such trust and responsibility.

“What we’re providing is a solid foundation of essential life skills and socialisation they will need when they leave prison and return to the community.”

RSPCA dog trainer Bianca with Nemesis, one of the cheeky younger pups in the program. Credit: Corrective Services NSW.