Dogs and inmates both transformed by prison rehab program

Tavarius McCorkle has made a difference 25 times over. As the result of his patient, consistent care and training, 25 dogs who might have languished in an animal shelter -- or faced euthanization - have been rehabilitated and are now living happily in their adoptive "forever" homes.

"Taking care of a dog makes you humble, and having a companion in this situation helps keep you out of trouble," says McCorkle.

McCorkle's situation is a 20-year stint behind bars at the Alger County Maximum Security Prison. McCorkle, 39, was convicted of second-degree murder. For the past three and a half years he has lived with, bonded with, and ultimately said goodbye to the abused or abandoned dogs that have come into his care through a program held in conjunction with the Eva Burrell Animal Shelter in Manistique.

The program began in 2011. Shelter director Patti Newby had many dogs in need of long-term, one-on-one rehabilitation, and prison warden Catherine Bauman believed that working with these dogs would benefit Alger Max inmates. At the time, there were only two such programs in Michigan prisons, both downstate.

"We had seen this program work in many other states and prisons," says corrections officer Patti Hubble. "We started with three dogs in our Level 4, and decided to move the program to our Level 2 when it opened in 2012. We now house up to 10 dogs at a time.

"We were only the second program in the state with the Department of Corrections to start a dog program. There will soon be twelve prison dog programs throughout the state of Michigan. That in itself shows that this has been a very successful and positive program."

Patty Newby says that dogs selected for the program have good dispositions, but little to no manners or training. "[They are] dogs that tend to be, or could be, people friendly. Dogs that need to be channeled and have potential to be great family additions, given a chance." For some dogs, she says the program "Is absolutely the difference between adoption and euthanasia."

Inmates who want to work with the dogs must meet strict criteria and must attend an eight-week training course taught by dog handlers. The also must have, says Hubble, "The abilities and attitudes we are looking for."

Newby says that those abilities and attitudes must include "Diligence, patience, compassion, willingness, setting aside their agenda, the ability to try different methods for different dogs, to keep the big picture in mind, and the ability to let go."

Being a 24/7 dog trainer in a prison environment is a complicated and demanding proposition. "Living together in a cell with another man can be very stressful, now adding a dog and responsibilities can increase that stress," says Hubble. "It takes a big commitment and dedication to participate in this program." 

Hubble says she was surprised by the amount of patience, compassion, and sense of responsibility inmates have for "their" dogs, and also by the teamwork they display. "They have been great at helping each other in many different ways. Part of being a dog handler means you also have to help train and educate the new handlers, and they really come together and work as a team.

When the dogs return to the shelter, says Patty Newby, the change in each of them is profound. "They find balance, and the ability to cope in the real world. They find the ability to operate in joy and thrive in a forever family. They have learned obedience -- but also trust."

While she says she has only recently begun compiling statistics on the number of successful adoptions that have resulted from the program, she says with confidence that the success rate is high.

As the dogs are transformed by the training, discipline, and affection of their handlers, so the inmates are transformed as well.

"It changes their whole outlook on being in prison," says Hubble. "Now they are serving a purpose and doing something positive. They feel in a way they are making up for things they have done wrong in their lives, accomplishing something, and making themselves and their families proud. It even has an effect on the inmates not involved in the program. Having the dogs around can really ease the tensions and pressures inside the prison. Some inmates have not seen or touched a dog in 20 years. The dogs can transform so many lives. Our dog handlers can even bring their dogs on a brief visit with their families so they can see they are making a difference during their incarceration."

McCorkle seems awed by his own transformation.

"It amazes me that I have become so tolerant, passive and humble," says McCorkle."I have learned patience; being patient with other handlers, partners, and some of the dogs." And like his four-legged charges, McCorkle has learned self-discipline. "If you can't control your behavior in here, how will you be able to control yourself in society? I have to be able to have patience to walk away from something, and I could not have done that before."

He adds that while he becomes attached to every dog he works with, the first goodbye, to his dog Chief was the hardest.
McCorkle plans to remain a part of the dog rehab program, and believes that the rewards outweigh the challenges, the frustrations, and the pain of parting with a canine companion.

Being able to give back is a wonderful thing. Being held to a higher standard, it helps build a better character within yourself. It helps you have the feeling of being back in society. I have more respect for life.

"This program is a privilege. It makes me feel human again."

To donate needed items to the Alger Max dog rehabilitation program, visit this link

Deb Pascoe is a freelance writer based in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 
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