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Inmates and dogs benefit from partnership between prison and animal rescue

A partnership between an animal rescue and a prison in Pennsylvania has changed the lives of hundreds of dogs and dozens of inmates.

NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. — A partnership between an animal shelter and a state prison in Northumberland County has changed the lives of hundreds of dogs and dozens of inmates. These rescue dogs otherwise would not have been given a second chance, and the lives of the inmates who train them are forever changed, too.

"You get to see them go somewhere that we don't get to go," an inmate said.

Inside the State Correctional Institution - Coal Township, a handful of inmates on one of the blocks have what they believe to be the most important—and most rewarding—job at the prison. Right now, there are eight who are dog handlers.

"At first, I didn't want to do it. I was really nervous about it because I saw inmates as inmates and not as human beings," explained Carol Kalinowski, founder and president of Mommy and Me Rescue.

About 30 minutes from the prison in Coal Township is Mommy and Me Rescue, a nonprofit no-kill animal shelter in Mount Carmel. For the past few years, the rescue in Northumberland County has partnered with the prison in the FIDOS program, which stands for fostering and improving dog obedience and survival.

"It's pretty awesome, to be honest with you. You come into this business and you're not really sure what to expect, and when you see that what you're doing has an effect on people, a positive effect, it brings a good feeling to you, and I think a lot of staff here relate to that," said Unit Manager John Dunn, SCI Coal Township.

The dogs that enter the prison program are dogs that may not have otherwise been able to be adopted because of their past. Some stay about four to six weeks, others a lot longer, depending on the training the dog needs. Each dog is paired with an inmate, and the inmate works with the dog until it is ready to be adopted out.

"They're both benefiting from it. It takes two beings that kind of were on the dark side of the road and moves them into the light, and that's what's really important to us," Kalinowski said.

The prison did not allow us to show inmates' faces or share their names, but one of the handlers we spoke to has been involved with the program since it began nearly nine years ago. He has seen dozens of dogs find their forever homes. Right now, he is working with 2-year-old Ranger. A year ago, before coming to Mommy and Me and the prison, Ranger was considered to be unadoptable and was going to be put down. In his first few weeks at the prison, inmates say he was completely wild, an escape artist breaking out of the block and running through the halls.

But now it is like he is an entirely new dog, and his handler says Ranger has a nice long life ahead of him.

"They give unconditional love back to you, and I know you hear that a lot from animal lovers, but in here, it's different. It changes the atmosphere. All the guys like being on the block, everyone wants to feed the dogs," Ranger's handler said.

Since the start of the FIDOS program almost a decade ago, about 700 dogs have been adopted out, getting the second chance they probably would not have if it were not for the inmates here at SCI Coal Township. The dogs live with the handlers in their cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The handlers spend all of their days training the dogs, socializing them, and turning their lives around.

"It's taught me a lot of patience, responsibility, and brought a lot of structure," one inmate shared.

"Just balancing my time, discipline, obviously the emotional balance of it. It's a different pace from the rest of the jail," explained another.

And in return, the dogs turn the lives of the inmates around, too. Some may never get out of prison, but for those who do, they often find jobs working with and caring for animals.

Kalinowski says she has received countless letters from inmates over the years thanking her for giving them this second chance. She says even the inmates on this block who aren't handlers have found a new sense of calm and happiness.

"It confirms everything I ever thought about dogs. I always felt myself that dogs really they're there, unconditional love. They don't care what you've done or who you are, they will support you in some way."

Once the handlers believe a dog is ready to find its forever home, rescue workers at Mommy and Me coordinate the adoption process. Then, new dogs are brought into SCI Coal Township, and the process starts over again.

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