On an idyllic sun-drenched day in California, I find myself in jail. But unlike the 5,000 or so inmates of North Kern State Prison, located 150 miles north of Los Angeles, I’m here voluntarily, accompanied by Zach Skow, a man on a mission to bring dogs into every US prison.
Skow is the founder of Pawsitive Change, a rehabilitation programme that pairs rescue dogs with inmates. He began a pilot programme at California City Correctional Facility in January 2016, teaching inmates to become dog trainers, and it’s now been rolled out to four more California state prisons and one female juvenile correction centre.
To date more than 300 men have graduated from the programme and roughly 200 dogs from “high-kill” shelters have been rescued and adopted as a result of the inmates’ work with them (the shelters accept any animal, regardless of age or circumstance, but they do euthanise a certain percentage if they can’t rehome them). Seventeen of the programme’s human graduates have been paroled and so far none has returned to prison (at a time when the US recidivism rate stands at 43%). The majority of the dogs they trained have been awarded the Canine Good Citizen certification in recognition of good behaviour and obedience. Two of the canine graduates have been certified as therapy dogs and several others are in training to be service dogs for military veterans.
I join in the second week of the 14-week course at North Kern, together with two dozen inmate students, head trainer Robert Villaneda and Skow. I’ve been in some form of education my whole life – school, university, drama school, therapist training college – but what I witness in terms of student engagement is unprecedented. In every classroom I’ve ever sat in, there’s been a healthy proportion of students checking their phone, looking out the window, chatting or grabbing a few winks. At North Kern, however, the students are totally engaged, taking copious notes, asking questions and sharing knowledge.
To have made it on to the course, they have each submitted essays on what they’d bring to the programme and why they want to do it. The only inmates excluded are those who have been convicted of violence against animals or sexual assault.
While Villaneda leads the session, he frequently hands over to the programme mentors: men who’ve already completed the course several times. In terms of attentiveness to their canine charges, the students would put any dedicated helicopter parent to shame. They give detailed accounts of bowel movements; how one dog won’t eat in front of other people; how another won’t go to the toilet until all the others have gone first. Skow explains that a core part of the programme involves the students (he never refers to them as “inmates”, rather “trainers” or “rescuers”) being aware of and identifying their own emotional states at any given time. “Animals don’t follow unbalanced energy,” he says, “so we need the guys to be able to recognise if they’re off their centre and, crucially, how to get themselves on a level again.”
Skow’s motivation to start Pawsitive Change is rooted in his own recovery from alcohol addiction. In 2008 he was diagnosed with acute liver disease and given six months to live if he didn’t stop drinking. A dog lover from a young age, he credits his recovery to the fact he didn’t want to abandon his dogs. After the wake-up call of his diagnosis he gave up alcohol and went on to set up a dog-rescue service, Marley’s Mutts, which is based in Kern County and rescues dogs from shelters and troubled regions of the world. His interest in working with incarcerated people sprung from his AA meetings where his sponsor would relate stories of running meetings inside the prison system. Skow’s interest was piqued: with hundreds of abandoned “mutts” in his own rescue facility, he wondered if he could bring the healing power of dogs to the prison system.
As I watch the men go through their paces with their dogs, I am immediately impressed. Working with the dogs and seeing what the animals are going through prompts the men to speak of their own experiences. When one student relates how his dog didn’t want to come out of the kennel in the first few days, another shares how he too didn’t want to leave his cell when he first came to prison. As a therapist, I found the Pawsitive Change students’ level of emotional literacy and ability to be vulnerable staggering.
Two themes that repeatedly come up in my conversations with the students are trust and responsibility. Many of these men have been told repeatedly from a young age that they’re not to be trusted, that they make a mess of things, that they’re not fit to take charge of anything. This message is then reinforced as they progress through the penal system. If I’ve learned one thing while working as a psychotherapist, it’s that what we’re told we’ll become, we’ll become. This programme challenges the “branding” these men have had imposed on them from an early age. It allows them to create new narratives.
For each programme cycle, Marley’s Mutts selects around 10 dogs that have been discarded and ended up in “high-kill” shelters. The aim is that they complete a Canine Good Citizen Certification, which requires them to demonstrate increased signs of trust and respect with handlers and other humans; decreased symptoms of nervousness, insecurity and fear; decreased tendencies toward possessiveness and territoriality, and increased balanced social behaviour towards other dogs. At the end of the programme, the dogs are then significantly more likely to be taken on as pets by members of the public. The programme has so far seen around 150 dogs saved from death every year.
Isaac is 43 and has been incarcerated since he was 18. He’s doing the programme for the fourth time, having started his first round in September 2018. This is quite common – many of the students keep coming back, saying that they learn something different on each round as every dog has its own unique issues. Isaac tells me that he wanted to be a dog trainer since he was nine or 10, but that his dad dismissed it as “not a real job”. Isaac is now a mentor, guiding and assisting other students. He has also earned a degree in communications and psychology while in prison.
When I ask him what he’s learned from the course, he explains how it’s given him an opportunity to interact with prisoners from other races. “At mealtimes, the tables they’re Mexican only or whites only or blacks only,” he says. “But working with the dogs, that just breaks down.”
Isaac’s expectations of what he’d get from the programme have been exceeded. Keen to fulfil his childhood ambition of dog training, he had hoped to learn some practical skills that could be put to good use when he was released. But he explains that he has also learned to manage his frustration and build patience. “Growing up in a patriarchal Hispanic family, the norm was to bottle up your emotions, but here I’ve been challenged to really be honest about what I’m going through. In the first round of training I was matched with a really challenging dog, Tiny, who just wouldn’t come out of her crate. Working with her I had no choice but to ask some of the other guys for help, something I’d always avoided in my life.”
Venie, 33, was given two life sentences in 2017. Attacked by a pit bull at the age of 10, he was an unlikely candidate for the programme because he was terrified of dogs. However, Venie had a chance to rebuild his trust in dogs through working with a pit bull named Willow. He describes an understanding that they developed: “I sensed what she had been through. She helped me to heal my past traumas and forgive those who had let me down.”
Venie’s take on being incarcerated is rare, but not totally unusual: “Prison is my hope. I’m not dead.” He describes Pawsitive Change as “spiritually, emotionally and physically a blessing”.
Venie never met his dad. He says the support and encouragement from some of the men in the programme has helped him grow his own self-belief. He has found “father figures” among them, explaining: “They trust me to be a man, to be responsible and they invest their time in me. That’s huge for me and it’s my job to show them that’s not been in vain.” He wants to challenge the belief that only “bad people” are in prison.
Venie is a father to three girls and he said that the programme has been instrumental in helping him to develop a closer bond with his kids, who get to see how he’s committed to using his time in prison productively.
The head trainer for North Kern prison, Robert Villaneda, has worked with more than 300 inmates through the Pawsitive Change programme. He is passionate about the work: “I can relate to these men. When I came out of the military I was really struggling to adapt into society. I used drugs and alcohol to numb myself. Finding my passion working with dogs really snapped me out of that. It gave me a sense of purpose. These guys have been through huge struggles in their lives and they’ve been given up on. But they make such strong connections with their dogs, you see how caring they can be. The dogs help them connect with their emotions.”
I ask him how the Pawsitive Change students’ training compares to those who are studying dog-training courses outside of prison. “It’s totally different. For most people working to become dog trainers, you do the hours, you’re focused when you’re there, but after that there are family commitments, other work you have to do. Whereas these guys are totally immersed in it for the 14 weeks. They’re not going outside! And they’re constantly interacting with the dogs. They get a depth of experience that really cannot be matched. That’s why some of our graduates are getting such a strong reputation. They’ve put in about 10 times the amount of hours a regular trainer would have.”
Later I speak to Jason Mori, a Pawsitive Change alumnus who was released in late 2017. Twelve years ago Jason was featured on America’s Most Wanted TV show when he went on the run after being implicated in a violent crime. Now he’s one of the most in-demand dog trainers in California.
He’s been running K9BreakThru, his highly successful doggy day-care, boarding and training business in Costa Mesa, California, since his release from prison. “Six months prior to my release I was creating a business plan,” he says. “I used the opportunity of having nothing better to do and tried to spend my time wisely.” Mori got involved with several dog rescues in his area upon release and worked with the dogs no one else wanted to, typically those with behavioural issues. His reputation spread quickly.
While he was in prison, he enjoyed the first round of training so much he did four further rounds, eventually becoming a mentor. He realised he’d be able to earn a living doing what he loved. “I’m still rehabilitating myself,” he acknowledges. “Working with dogs is what keeps me present and stops me from beating myself up about the past. I feel incredibly grateful that when I left I had accrued hundreds of hours of training from some of the best dog trainers in the country. It’s set me up to have a business, a new life, a second chance.”
Rehabilitation is a word that inevitably arises with any talk of prison reform. The question invariably being, can “bad people” change and if so, how? But I feel rehabilitation is a misnomer. One definition of rehabilitation is “the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition” – but for many incarcerated men, the idea of their “former condition” being an ideal state is nonsense.
Very often it seems clear to me why an incarcerated man has chosen the path that has eventually led him to prison. The challenge isn’t so much one of rehabilitation as of rebirth and reparenting. They have to learn they can be trusted and that they can be responsible. Having the experience of people believing in them, learning that they’re innately worthy and, crucially, lovable, are for many of these men new and life-changing concepts.
While working on this article, I hear that Isaac has been paroled. I’m reminded of what he told me when I saw him in prison: “I care a lot about these dogs, because they give me a lot.” Apparently, he impressed the board with how he’d been spending his time, particularly his work on rescuing and rehabilitating dogs. Those dogs may have just given him the biggest gift of all – freedom.