Inmates see the ‘pawsitive’ effects of dogs

GREENWOOD—Every week, members of Our Lady of Lourdes Church pass into the heart of Leath Correctional Institution for women.

The prison ministry group is there to share the Eucharist with Catholic inmates, hold Bible study sessions, and welcome anyone who wants to rebuild their relationship with God.

Lately, they’ve gotten a “helping paw” from some four-legged emissaries, who have helped open hearts since coming to the prison.

Libby Bartley, who is part of Our Lady of Lourdes prison ministry, said they have grown to know the inmates as people, who are just like anyone else, and have discovered unique opportunities for outreach with them. One of those ways came from an inmate in their Bible study group, who is involved with the Humane Society of Greenwood’s “Pawsitive Prison Program.”

Pawsitive is a progressive initiative that pairs shelter dogs with inmates for rehabilitation and training, said Karen Pettay, executive director of the Greenwood Humane Society. Currently, there are five dogs living behind bars with their inmate handlers, who are vetted and trained for the opportunity. Another four have graduated and been adopted.

Bartley said she has seen a wonderful change in the women and the atmosphere of the prison since the program began.

Six months ago, when Chance, the very first test case, ambled inside, people stopped what they were doing and stared.

“I haven’t seen a dog in 15 years,” one lady said in awe.

Bartley noted that several of the women are serving life sentences. It can be an isolating life, as the inmates aren’t allowed to hug or touch one another, but she said the dogs provide an outlet for love and affection. From where her group evangelizes, they can look onto the courtyard and see the women training and interacting with the canines.

“They’re much more cheerful as a result of it. It’s good for the dogs, and better for the girls,” Bartley said.

So when their Bible-study member asked Bartley and others in the prison ministry to help with a fundraiser, they were happy to do so. The church collected donations for Pawsitive and took them to the Humane Society.

Pettay said they are grateful to Our Lady of Lourdes, adding that one of the parishioners has even inquired about adopting a prison dog.

The program was brought to Leath through the lobbying efforts of Connie, an inmate who was involved with a similar program at another prison. When Connie was transferred to Greenwood, she received permission to bring in Chance and train him. She helped the big dog learn to be gentle and calm, and taught him unique abilities such as turning lights on and off.

Pawsitive has offered the pooches a second chance at life, and the inmates as well. Pettay said Connie knows more about dogs than anyone she has ever met, and hopes to hire her when she is paroled to serve as a liaison in the Pawsitive program.

“These dogs provide so many therapies,” Pettay said. “And we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

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Photo provided: Chance was the first dog to enter Leath Correctional Institution as part of the “Pawsitive Prison Program.” Eight others have followed him.