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Pen Pals: Dixon Correctional Facilities Unique Program

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Dixon Correctional Institute inmate Jason Broom, right, leads an excited pit bill named Murphy out of his pen, accompanied by Department of Corrections Sgt. Casey Cooley, the Pen Pals shelter manager (Photo: Travis Spradling/Advocate)

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Finding a positive way to help reshape prisoners and give them direction and focus can be a challenge, but the Dixon Correctional Institute has taken the prisoners and dog concept and grown it a step further. Enter Pen Pals, a program that has, to date, seen some 400 dogs find new homes and countless feral cats to  be mousers on farms.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, there were over 50,000 animals, which is a conservative estimate, abandoned in New Orleans and the surrounding areas as people left the area to find safety. Many had planned on returning home to retrieve their pets, but the horrible circumstances that surrounded the tragedy left animals trapped, chained, facing toxic waters, extreme temperatures, and no food or drinkable water. One of the organizations that stepped up was the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI) when rescued animals packed the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales which was acting as an emergency shelter.   They offered prison space to the Humane Society of the United States.  That act turned into the creation of a permanent shelter through a grant received from the HSUS, which continues its on-going support in conjunction with the Louisiana State University Veterinary School ,with additional grants and adoption fees ($40), paying for the program costs.

Inmates, counterclockwise from right, Pernell Madison, Joe Jones, Newton Watkins, Romalis Hartwell, Wylie Vanscoter, and Eric Spinks, listen to a presentation along with LSU Veterinary staffer Annie Daniel, far left, at the DCI Pen Pals shelter (Photo: Travis Spradling/Advocate)

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Pen Pals, Inc., Dog and Cat Shelter and Adoption Center is the result of that established relationship providing both permanent and temporary shelter for animals on the prison grounds.  A major part of the program is the training it provides for those studying to become veterinarians through LSU on a fully comprehensive level and the rehabilitative opportunities for inmates that learn a variety of procedures and protocols and assist.  An article in the Acadiana Advocate, discusses the animal care program for inmates that includes everything feeding, cleaning, and checking for diseases to administering treatment, teaching basic obedience and social skills.  It is a coveted job within in the system, limited to eight participants who meet the strict criteria.  Those admitted to the program are expected to work and work hard.  If they don’t, they are out.

(Photo: Dixon Correctional Institution)

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Wylie Vanscoter, 22, is in for a 2010 armed robbery.  Col. John C. Smith, one of the program’s overseers, has known him since he was 16, stating, “(Vanscoter) Had a few hiccups in the process, but he came down here, and seeing the changes he’s made … it’s helped him out, made him a better person with a little more understanding of other people.” Vanscoter has become inspired by being in the program, looking at a future in animal care.  There are other Pen Pals, too, that have found a direction in working with animals including Matthew Eldridge whom after leaving the institution is working for Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans.  He has also appeared on Animal Planet’s Pit Bulls and Parolees.  Another current participant, Jason Broom, is looking forward to becoming a veterinary technician upon his release, having already completed some certification courses.

The inmates are trained by the LSU Veterinary Medicine staff to perform aspects of health care such as fecal analysis, heartworm testing, giving vaccinations, and behavioral testing for newly arrived dogs that are quarantined for two weeks  before inmates begin introductions to other animals.  The obedience and socialization training the animals receive from the inmates gets them readied for adoption, a process that validates the good work of everyone involved in the program.

Broom takes pride in showing off what the dogs can do when someone is interested in adopting. “You show the person who’s interested in the dog, ‘Look: he sits, he downs, he kennels.’ It’s almost 100 percent.” That bodes well for both inmates, dogs, and cats, who are realizing success in Pen Pals.

DCI inmate Jason Broom shows off brother-sister pair of Pit Bull mix puppies at Pen Pals shelter. ‘There’s a stigma attached to coming to the prison, but people should know it is a very good place to adopt a dog from, because of all the time we are able to spend socializing and training the dogs,” Broom told the Acadiana Advocate (Photo: Travis Spralding/Advocate)

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