At Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility a new program is underway that is working with inmates and dogs.
The program is called P.A.W.S. and the goal of the program is to help dogs who are just days away from being euthanized get basic training and find a home.
James Gonzalez, an inmate serving a life sentence, but the dog he is training named Puck just escaped “Death Row” due to a new program called Prisoners and Animals Working Toward Success or P.A.W.S.
“I know that by the training that we are giving them his chances of staying in a stable home are much greater,” Says Gonzalez.
Gonzalez and other inmates many who are serving life or long sentences at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility are taking part in P.A.W.S. program that prepares them to train dogs.
The inmates live with the dogs as they train and get volunteer dog lessons from a trainer about dog behavior.
Renee Waskiewicz, Region Three Manager with the New Mexico Department of Corrections worked to start the program. Through her work in the community she has learned that most dogs end up in shelters due to behavioral problems, and having a program like P.A.W.S. helps inmates learn a new skill while also taking on the high euthanasia rates dogs facing communities across the country.
“So if you get a dog that is already trained, that doesn’t have these behavioral problems, this dog is going to be a better family pet, a better companion, and probably won’t end up in a shelter again. These inmates have nothing but time on their hands, and that’s what dog training takes is time and consistency,” says Waskiewicz.
With that time, James Gonzalez has learned a lot about himself by taking part in the program.
“Being involved in this program has just opened up my eyes to a lot of things I was doing wrong and now its just about doing good,” says Gonzalez.
Gonzalez says that the program also has provided comfort to his family who has been impacted by his incarceration.
“Not only am I doing time; my family is doing time. So when I tell them about things that we are doing. They see that I’m happy so it brings them a little bit more comfort knowing that I’m changing and making a change that I’m helping a dog also find a home.”
Another inmate, Kevin Sutphin is training a dog named, Frankie. He says that the program has helped him remember a lot about himself that he has forgotten after many years of incarceration.
“You let go of it after so many years in prison, trying to be hard-core; putting on that mask that we all wear in prison (you know that we’re all tough). It eventually becomes a habit and you eventually become that mask. Being around these dogs showed me that I could take that mask off and leave it off. I have no need for it. I can be who I am and that dog is letting me do that…through love.”
Sutphin says he enjoys learning about the way a dog can communicate needs and wants.
“It’s not just as simple as a bark or scratching on the door. It’s complex, and I never knew how complex that it is, and it’s amazing how they figure out how to talk to you.”
For the inmates to get into the program there is a strict application process and they reside together in one pod in the prison according to Nina Salcido-Marquez, Unit Manager at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.
“Not just any inmate can be in the program, and then if I see that they are not suitable or not programming, I do remove them and try somebody else out.” says Salcido-Marquez.
However, like Kevin Sutphin and James Gonzalez say they have been able to learn new skills through the program, and with other inmates who have been in the program since the start, they were recently recognized at a graduation for some of the dogs being trained.
Kevin Sutphin says the whole design of the P.A.W.S. program is something new and unique to that of any other program he has encountered in the system.
“It’s definitely unique, opposed to any other program I’ve been involved with in corrections. I’ve never been around any thing that I could actually save or anything that could get any benefit for me really. I’ve been in self-help groups and all those kinds of things to help myself. I’ve never really been involved with anything to help something besides myself so that’s wonderful for me.”
Besides, helping the dogs the inmates say that they work help the families that want to adopt dogs, by keeping a log on each dog that gets trained. The logs contain all the specific details to the training each dog has had, along with more information each dog’s personality so each family can be prepared to offer every dog adopted through the program the best home possible.