Yesterday I met a man who is serving a life sentence in prison for killing both his grandparents.
This is how our conversation went:
“Can you show me how to get the dog to come to me?” It was the first thing he had said to me, eyes down looking at the ground between us. I was visiting the prison with Healing Species, known for it’s Character Education Program for students, that also operates a rescue/adoption facility for dogs, and has been placing dogs in prisons since 2012. Four once abandoned and unloved dogs now lived in the institution with the inmates, as they trained and loved them into being adoptable to future outside homes.
We had gone up to visit the assisted living unit, the four “handlers” and their pups, on a mission to bring some life and joy to the inmates less able to get around well, due to age or mental or physical limits.
“Well, sure, let’s see,” I smiled. “These dogs are so loved they’re almost snobby, aren’t they?” I joked as one large and healthy dog sniffed his way by us, oblivious to my outreached hand.
He laughed; he got my joke, then he kept laughing for a minute. “They get a lot of attention. They aren’t hungry for attention around here.”
“Well, you know to put your hand out, right? Palm up or down, arm extended.” I showed him, and he mimicked the motion, testing it out. “You can also make a clicking sound when you are calling them, they love that!”
He tried clicking, and it was perfect.
“Now, put love in your eyes. They can read love. Put it in your eyes and your eyebrows; let him know you’re happy to see him.”
The man who’s face had stayed turned towards the ground made an effort to move his eyes upwards to face mine. It made him uncomfortable, because there was not only insecurity that made him look down, but also a physical pull that crooked his head to the side. But he still looked up.
His face contorted as he tried to “put love in his eyes.” It was the most beautiful sight, to see him truly trying to soften his gaze at the hope that one of the dogs would be more comfortable around him.
“You ready? That’s perfect. Let’s call one of them over.”
“Shepp! Want to come over? Come here, Shepp,” I sweetly called, in my nicest voice.
He came trotting over, happy and confident.
“Now put your hand out,” I reminded the man.
He put his hand out and starting clicking, and remembering his face was to be involved too, he lifted his eyes into a smile, despite the effort it took, as if there were weights on his eyebrows.
Shepp came over and let him love him. Then, quickly distracted by a bird, he darted off.
“Great job! You did it!”
He smiled down at the ground. “Thanks.”
And the smile stayed on his face.
Later as I commented on what a terrific person he was to some superiors, they informed me of his crime.
And to be honest, that only makes me care more.
What a deeply hurt person he must have been, along with the other inmates, to be living their lives out in the Department of Corrections. What would compel a person to commit murder, or burglary, or kidnapping? What pain must they have felt to not consider the consequences or the pain they were causing other people? What patterns of emotional or physical abuse had they adapted to place them behind heavy steel doors for the rest of their lives?
There are many victims of crimes out there, and I do not wish to excuse justice. In fact, contrary to rumor, most of the incarcerated admit they were wrong and accept the fact that they deserve to be there.
But everyone deserves healing.
Healing Species is helping prevent crime through the Compassion Education and Violence Prevention evidence-based curriculum program in schools. This program allows students to recognize hurts that need attention, and deal with them rather than turning to a life of distraction from them. Healing Species is rescuing neglected and abandoned dogs, giving them new life and an opportunity to do what dogs do best- love a family. And to the person locked up, lost, cast away, hated by society and forgotten, Healing Species has seen that even they need love and purpose, and are fostering it through dogs once unloved and cared for.
When we left, my co-worker cried. Two of the inmates, as they expressed gratitude at being able to participate in the program, allowed tears to fall down their faces as well. Hardened criminals, not so hard maybe, crying and feeling safe enough to do so in pure thankfulness.
In fact, when the program was first beginning at the prison, the inmates heard about the need to cover the expenses for the program. Amazingly, the inmates, who work for pennies an hour, made donations out of their own canteen money to make the program possible at their institution. Some men gave up to twenty dollars, for a total of over five hundred dollars.
When I heard this I couldn’t believe it. The money system in prison is much different than out here, and twenty dollars is a fortune. My heart was touched beyond measure. If they can give out of so little that they are working with, can’t I?
Before we left we heard this testimony to the program:
“This dog has changed my life. There has always been an empty place inside me. Caring for him has filled that void, and given me purpose. I know responsibility now. I know unconditional love now.” A true “healing species” at work.
And I’d say, money well spent.
For more about the Healing Dogs Adoption Prison Program, check out http://healingspecies.org/programs/prison-program.