By Eric Wilson-Edge
This is my first time in prison. I check in at the front desk. The correctional officer points to a row of lockers where I can store my wallet, keys and phone. I slide my driver’s license into a drop box. It’s swallowed in a quick metal gulp. A visitor’s pass slides out and I clip it to my sweater.
Dennis Cherry arrives a few minutes later. Cherry is a Custody Unit Manager at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. We walk through a series of checkpoints. Each time we wait for a buzz before the gate clicks open. Cherry tells me a little about the facility, when it was built and who lives in which building.
The facility opens into a sprawling, v-shaped yard. There are three layers of fence including one made entirely of concertina wire. It’s a cold, overcast day.
Dogs are playing in the grass outside one of the units. Their handlers exchange small talk. Nearby, a man is working on trying to get his dog to sit. This is Dwayne Satterfield, one of the offenders responsible for a one-year old Golden Retriever mix, Graham. He’s got big paws and a dopey smile.
Cherry escorts me to the cell where Satterfield lives with Graham and fellow offender Ansel Hofstetter. Graham, Satterfield and Hofstetter are all part of the Freedom Tails program. Freedom Tails started in 2009 with the idea of finding homes for shelter dogs. Each dog participates in a ten week training program administered by offenders.
“The program is about the dogs not us,” says Hofstetter. “We all want the same thing for the dog which is to get the best home.” There’s a large kennel in the corner of the cell and dog food on a shelf. Hostetter shows me a journal he’s been keeping. The journal is a kind of instruction manual for Graham. Inside are his likes and dislikes, his habits and a summary of his training. All of this information will be handed over to Graham’s new owners on graduation day.
Getting into the program isn’t easy for the dogs or the offenders. An inmate must be infraction free for a year before he can even apply. The slightest misstep could mean being removed, but that doesn’t happen often. There’s a waiting list of guys wanting to get involved. “The prisoner feels like that dog,” says Cherry. “The program gives a bit of hope that they won’t be thrown away.”
Freedom Tails is a partnership with North Beach PAWS animal shelter. A volunteer trainer makes the rounds to local animal shelters looking for dogs that would be a good fit for the program. There is no “ideal.” Some dogs are hyper, others are shy. The one thing they can’t be is violent.
The adoption process is equally thorough. “We review the applications and figure out if the dog is well-suited to the applicant, if not we will suggest another dog,” says North Beach Paws Adoption Coordinator, Debby Valdez. After the initial screening a meet and greet is setup. If all goes well then the dog will go home with his new family on graduation day. The adoption fees pay for the program and ensure more dogs can be helped.
Colleen Morgan’s Shepard Mix, Rocky, is one of the more than 200 dogs adopted through Freedom Tails. “We went down to interview Rocky and I had a few misgivings,” says Morgan. “Within ten minutes my husband and I said ‘this is it.’”
Two weeks after he was adopted Rocky passed the test (on his first try) to be a therapy dog. “We visit children that have been abused and we go to Highline Hospital,” says Morgan. “He has been an absolute wonder.”
I’m told there isn’t a dry eye in the house on graduation day. There’s a ceremony where the handlers get to show off their dogs. “We get a certificate at the end for our work with the dog,” says Satterfield. “I’m proud of doing it. I send the certificates to my sister so she can share positive examples of what I’ve done.” The ceremony ends and the handlers present the dogs to their new owners. The parties talk briefly, mostly about the dogs, and then it’s over.
Colleen Morgan’s husband Chuck chokes up as he tells me about Rocky’s graduation. The story involves a woman who is wheelchair bound. Her dog was never properly trained and had accidentally pulled her owner out of the chair on a few occasions. “Those inmates took the dogs,” says Morgan. “They obedience trained that dog to work with a person in a wheelchair. The second chance they gave to that dog and the gift they gave to that woman was amazing.”
Graham likes to sit on feet. I scratch his ears and tell him goodbye. He wags his tail and sits next to Satterfield and Hofstetter. Graham stays even though he desperately wants to run and play.
To view a list of dogs available for adoption, click here.