Set in the lush New York City suburb of Westchester County, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility–New York State’s largest women’s prison and its only maximum-security prison for women’has housed many infamous prisoners. But there is a more positive and inspiring aspect to the Bedford Hills prison that most people are unaware of: Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), an extraordinary program that allows inmates–many of them serving long prison sentences for violent crimes–a chance to turn selected puppies into highly trained service dogs for the disabled, or explosive-detection canines for law enforcement. The program–which started at Bedford in 1997 with five puppies–now operates at six correctional facilities in the tri-state (NY, NJ, CT) area and boasts 377 canine graduates.
Puppies and Inmates, In it Together
Puppies chosen for the program live in the cells with their primary caregivers, “puppy raisers,” and attend classes administered by PBB. They also spend two or three weekends a month in the homes of “puppy sitters,” so they can be exposed to things they won’t experience in prison, such as the sound of a doorbell or a coffee grinder, or learning how to safely ride in a car or walk down a crowded sidewalk.
Inmates who wish to become puppy raisers must sign a contract with PBB outlining their responsibilities and providing that any inmate may be asked to leave for any reason deemed appropriate by PBB. Requirements for participation in the program are strict, and include mandatory attendance at weekly puppy class as well as successful completion of reading assignments, homework, and exams. The puppy raiser must always put the needs of the puppy before his or her own, must be able to work effectively as a member of a team, and must be able to give and receive criticism in a constructive manner.
The puppies live in the prison for sixteen months, after which they are tested to determine their suitability for training as service dogs for the disabled or explosive-detection dogs for law enforcement. The dogs judged to be suitable are returned to the schools where they continue their formal training. Those who don’t continue on the working-dog track are donated by PBB to families with blind children. In either case, these dogs spend their lives as companions to people who need them.