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Wisconsin inmates earning redemption through prison dog training program

Wisconsin inmates earning redemption through prison dog training program

Inside a facility within the Oshkosh Correctional Institution is a group of inmates working towards a higher purpose. “I was sent on a 20-year sentence, so I’ve got about 12 more years to go,” said Jafari Mahonie, who is behind bars for dealing heroin. Aaron Smith, 15 years into a 20-year armed robbery sentence, sits beside Mahonie. “I was 18, made a bunch of really bad decisions,” Smith said. The two inmates have become friends in prison, not because of their past, but because of what they’re working towards for their futures. “I love being able to give something back to the community that we took from,” Smith said. “That we all did these bad things towards in the past, being able to do some positive for it.”Smith and Mahonie are volunteers with the Journey Together Service Dog program. It’s a program that trains dogs to become service dogs for people suffering from PTSD. “I could have never imagined being in prison with dogs, to get the opportunity,” Mahonie said. There are about a dozen dogs paired with a little more than 40 inmates, rotating every few months. Each of the inmates train the dogs different commands over the course of about two years, before the dogs graduate and are placed with clients. Some of the program’s clients are veterans and some of them are victims of crime. When not placed with individual clients, many of the dogs are placed in facilities, like police departments, domestic abuse centers and schools. . Most recently, Pepper helped victims of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy, during the court proceedings. As the service dogs work to give people a chance to live normally, the program works to give inmates a second chance at life. “How do you survive in a prison? You do what you’re told, exactly what you’re told, no more, no less. This whole thought of working together is totally forward and we’ve absolutely broached that in a huge way within this program,” said Brad Cirricione, treasurer of Journey. “These guys work together very well and, you know, they’re helpful to each other. They encourage each other.” Cirricione said their PTSD clients always say they sleep better with the dogs by their side and they go outside in public more than they ever could endure before. He said the inmates also grow. “Yes, they work with dogs, but they do a lot of other things that may or may not even be apparent to them,” Cirricione said. “We’ve done things like giving and receiving feedback. We’ve done a whole variety of things around team building, working together.”Smith, who wants to work in dog training or grooming when he’s released, chimed in, saying the dogs help them grow as people and work towards a future outside prison walls. “You got a dog to take care of, you have another being to take care of. You’ve got to kind of put yourself aside, the different things you may be dealing with, and focus on them and their well-being,” Smith said. Mahonie agreed. “No one person in the program is responsible for the dog’s growth. It’s all a team effort,” Mahonie said. “We all lean on each other. If I don’t know something, I just go ask. Everyone is willing to help each other grow, give their experience to the next guy.” “We’re teaching them, but they’re helping us also,” Mahonie said.

Inside a facility within the Oshkosh Correctional Institution is a group of inmates working towards a higher purpose.

“I was sent on a 20-year sentence, so I’ve got about 12 more years to go,” said Jafari Mahonie, who is behind bars for dealing heroin.

Aaron Smith, 15 years into a 20-year armed robbery sentence, sits beside Mahonie.

“I was 18, made a bunch of really bad decisions,” Smith said.

The two inmates have become friends in prison, not because of their past, but because of what they’re working towards for their futures.

“I love being able to give something back to the community that we took from,” Smith said. “That we all did these bad things towards in the past, being able to do some positive for it.”

Smith and Mahonie are volunteers with the Journey Together Service Dog program. It’s a program that trains dogs to become service dogs for people suffering from PTSD.

“I could have never imagined being in prison with dogs, to get the opportunity,” Mahonie said.

There are about a dozen dogs paired with a little more than 40 inmates, rotating every few months. Each of the inmates train the dogs different commands over the course of about two years, before the dogs graduate and are placed with clients.

Some of the program’s clients are veterans and some of them are victims of crime.

When not placed with individual clients, many of the dogs are placed in facilities, like police departments, domestic abuse centers and schools.

One of the service dogs to come out of the program is Sergeant Pepper, who now works at the Waukesha District Attorney’s office. Most recently, Pepper helped victims of the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy, during the court proceedings.

As the service dogs work to give people a chance to live normally, the program works to give inmates a second chance at life.

“How do you survive in a prison? You do what you’re told, exactly what you’re told, no more, no less. This whole thought of working together is totally forward and we’ve absolutely broached that in a huge way within this program,” said Brad Cirricione, treasurer of Journey. “These guys work together very well and, you know, they’re helpful to each other. They encourage each other.”

Cirricione said their PTSD clients always say they sleep better with the dogs by their side and they go outside in public more than they ever could endure before.

He said the inmates also grow.

“Yes, they work with dogs, but they do a lot of other things that may or may not even be apparent to them,” Cirricione said. “We’ve done things like giving and receiving feedback. We’ve done a whole variety of things around team building, working together.”

Smith, who wants to work in dog training or grooming when he’s released, chimed in, saying the dogs help them grow as people and work towards a future outside prison walls.

“You got a dog to take care of, you have another being to take care of. You’ve got to kind of put yourself aside, the different things you may be dealing with, and focus on them and their well-being,” Smith said.

Mahonie agreed.

“No one person in the program is responsible for the dog’s growth. It’s all a team effort,” Mahonie said. “We all lean on each other. If I don’t know something, I just go ask. Everyone is willing to help each other grow, give their experience to the next guy.”

“We’re teaching them, but they’re helping us also,” Mahonie said.

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