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February 2, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Jefferson City Correctional Center inmates Paul Baumgardner and Lee King discuss the benefits of the Puppies for Parole program and how the inmates interact with the dogs. The dogs seen here have filtered in and out of the program at the Jefferson City facility. Produced by Jesse Bishop
Prison work programs have come a long way since the days of smashing rocks, gathering trash and stamping license plates. The Jefferson City Department of Corrections still uses manual labor behind prison walls, but inmates no longer conduct menial tasks simply as punishment for prior crimes.Related Articles
Restorative Justice, a diverse program of education and restitution, takes a holistic approach to the rehabilitation of inmates. “It is actually an ancient philosophy that addresses criminal behavior with the fundamental that when a crime is committed, a debt has incurred,” says Chris Cline, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections. “Through Restorative Justice, an offender is held accountable, and it provides a means for them to repay that debt to the victim and society.”
The program also aims to help change attitudes and behaviors that led to offenders committing criminal acts in the first place.
“It provides the offender the opportunity to leave the system with an improved attitude and sense of belonging, as well as strengthening the social bonds that serve as the foundation of communities,” Cline says.
Inmates have dozens of options within the program, which range from making coloring books and toys to refurbishing wheelchairs. Dog training, gardening and sewing classes are among the most popular options. All parts of the program rely on donations; the Missouri Department of Corrections doesn’t spend a single tax dollar on materials for the program. However, before inmates pet a puppy or plant a seed, they first have to deal with their past transgressions.
The first step for offenders hoping to get involved in Restorative Justice is a class that forces inmates to confront their criminal pasts, reflect on the issues that put them behind bars and contemplate the effects their actions have on others. The enrollment process varies from institution to institution. Some require formal applications while others rely on staff recommendations. The content, though, is consistent.
“Impact of Crime on Victims is an intensive 40-hour curriculum that teaches offenders the impact crime has on a community and on victims,” Cline says. “During the curriculum, a myriad of crimes are covered, at which time offenders hear testimony from real-life victims who talk about the ripple effect that crime has had on their lives.”
Inmates at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City complete their 40 hours in one week though Cline says the time in which offenders complete their 40 hours can vary between institutions. After they complete the class, the inmates can choose a variety of Restorative Justice programs.
Human offenders have all had their day in court. Dogs behind bars, however, are often there through no fault of their own. Puppies for Parole is one option inmates in Restorative Justice have to give back.
“The concept is to give unwanted shelter dogs a second chance at getting a home by teaching them basic obedience skills,” Cline says. “The dogs actually come inside the institutions and live with the offenders for 10 to 12 weeks.”
The dogs undergo intensive instruction to help them assimilate into the outside world. Each dog must pass a canine good-citizenship test before being deemed ready for adoption.
Participating institutions work with local shelters to take in unwanted or troubled dogs for the program. The Central Missouri Humane Society isn’t one of those shelters, but Danielle Burlis, a volunteer at the shelter, says they welcome outside help in dealing with difficult animals.
“It’s hard here where we get a lot of strays because we don’t know their past,” Burlis says. “A lot of times something happened in the past that causes them to be the way they are. Sometimes animals are so badly changed with one event or one period of time when they were abused that they’re just not fit to go back into a home.”
They rely on the support of rescue groups or foster homes when they can. Puppies for Parole offers support at 16 institutions throughout Missouri.
Another popular program for offenders in Restorative Justice is the garden program. Most Missouri institutions have a garden program, and the food inmates grow goes to feed families in need across the state. The garden program has flourished in recent years, with produce being grown across the state.
“We set the bar higher each and every year,” Cline says. “Last year, we produced 26 tons of produce. This year, we produced nearly 64 tons, and all that produce is donated to food pantries and food banks.”
The Central Missouri Food Bank received food from the program this year. Communications Coordinator Rachel Ellersieck says economic hardship makes eating healthy difficult because fresh produce costs more than junk food, which contributes to obesity among low-income populations. Restorative Justice provides an inexpensive way for families in need to eat a healthy diet.
“It’s awesome,” Ellersieck says. “Even having access to produce they may not be able to afford in the grocery store or may not always be available in our pantries can be kind of a spirit lifter. It helps make their diet more well-rounded, which is always important.”
When an EF5 tornado tore through Joplin and leveled thousands of homes last May, offenders in the Restorative Justice program did what they could to help.
“At several of our institutions we have sewing rooms where offenders have the opportunity to make blankets, quilts, stockings and even various stuffed animals,” Cline says. Inmates make these items regularly as part of the program, but they made special products specifically for the Joplin disaster, including special neckties with cooling beads sewn inside for relief workers.
The Missouri Department of Corrections delivered thousands of cooling ties, blankets and dozens of other products to Joplin relief efforts.