Prison Puppies Program: Saving Lives, Healing Incarcerated Women - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Prison Puppies Program: Saving Lives, Healing Incarcerated Women

Inmates training the puppies. (Source: WMC Action News 5) Inmates training the puppies. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Felicia holding an inmate's hands Felicia holding an inmate's hands

Behind the walls of the Mark H. Luttrell Correctional Center live some of the most violent offenders in Shelby County. Some of these women are still paying for crimes committed several decades ago.

"I caused so much destruction out there. I just destroyed people's lives and families and hurt people so badly out own family included," Shawnda explained.

They’ve committed crimes so heinous and so brutal that the Tennessee Department of Corrections is required to get the approval from their victims' families in order for us to release their full identities.

That permission was not granted for Kassy, Shawnda or their fellow unit mates this day.

"I committed a murder when I was younger, when I was 14," Shawnda said.

"I've been in this facility since 2000, but I've been incarcerated since 1998," Kassy said. "I was charged with second-degree murder in 1998, and I've been here ever since.” 

The women said they've tried hard to heal the wounds their actions caused.

"It's very difficult. I think as I've matured I've realized the pain, the hurt that I've caused some people out there,” Kassy said. “I just want to be able to never do that again.”

For a select group of inmates, a rehabilitation program reached new levels in mending their lives. It's not through a therapist that they’ve found the path to redemption, but through a dog. 

“I caused a lot of pain with an action that I did. It's still today--and there's nothing I can do to change that,” Shawnda said. “What I try to do with my every day is somehow put something positive in knowing how much negative [I caused]."

"I just don't ever want to be the way I was before, and I see that working with the animals also. Because they come in and they walk out and they are not the same animal,” Kassy said.

The Collierville Animal Shelter partners with the state for Prison Puppies Achieving Worthy Service, a program better known as PPAWS.

Click here to see pictures of the dogs being trained.

Shelter Director Nina Wingfield said inmates have trained about 400 abused, abandoned, and neglected puppies over the past 8 years.

"A lot of puppies and adult dogs have come through here needed to be socialized, trained, motivated, loved, and cared for,” Wingfield said.

These puppies spend 24 hours with the inmates, even sleeping in crates in their cells. They leave the program and go on to become service dogs for veterans with PTSD, special needs therapy dogs, or dogs that can assist people with physical disabilities.

"It's so valuable for this program to be given to us, because we're able to help more animals, which lowers our euthanization numbers,” Wingfield said. “Some of these animals that we've put into the prison, if they hadn't of had this guidance, we might have had no other option for them.” 

Wingfield believes this program is a cell block life-saver, not only for the dogs but also for the female inmates.

"There's conditioning and there's training. Training is teaching them commands to be able to do something when we tell them to do it,”Shawnda said. “Conditioning is teaching them how to make their own choice, how to make better choices. I said if they're being conditioned to make better choices, I have to be too."

"They've learned how to be what we would call a ‘good dog,’ and they go back out and they make people proud. And I want to be able to make people proud," Kassy said.

The PPAWS Program is just the beginning of training for these dogs. They will spend a lifetime dedicated to service. Right now they need help finding unique forever homes and ways to continue their training outside of the jail.

If you can help, call the Collierville Animal Shelter at (901) 457-2670.

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