POTOSI, MO (KFVS) - A unique program is changing lives within the Missouri Department of Corrections.
It is called Puppies for Parole and the impact goes full circle.
The program places shelter dogs that might otherwise be overlooked inside correctional facilities to get basic training and in some cases become advance dogs for people with special needs. But when you think about it, who is helping who here?
Potosi Correctional Center is facility wrapped in barbed wire. But inside, shelter dogs are getting what some might call a new "leash" on life.
"She's [dog Maddie] going to a guy in a wheelchair," Aaron Larose said, an inmate and Puppies for Parole trainer. "Maddie, you would know not believe it if you would have seen her when she first came in. She was either abandon or strayed."
The Puppies for Parole program is showing the healing nature of dogs.
The dogs in the program stay with the inmates 24/7 while going through training.
"It gives our staff and offenders something to talk about besides everyday institutional living," Travis Crews said, Assistant Warden at Potosi Correctional. "The Puppies for Parole program is voluntary. So, they [the inmates] do this in addition to their jobs."
"I owe the program a lot," Michael Est said, an inmate and puppies for parole trainer. "The people that gave me a chance, I owe them a lot."
"I found as I was helping the dog, they were helping me, changing me," Keith Linhardt said, an inmate and dog trainer at Potosi Correctional.
Linhardt said it has even changed the attitude of other inmates at the facility.
"It's kind of a change of thinking if you will, of like, wow, I never would have thought that," Linhardt said. "Wow, look at what the department of corrections if doing. It kind of gives hope in a sense."
"The dogs, obviously they're being saved and that's the program at its core, but it helps the inmates here, helps the staff, helps the people that adopt the dogs," Larose said.
That's being seen at Saint Francis Medical Center.
"Titus is our certified therapy animal," Leigh Hampton said, the Palliative Care Coordinator at Saint Francis Medical Center. "When he's here, he acts entirely different. He knows he's here to go to work and he really does have a ministry here at Saint Francis."
Believe it or not, Titus did time in the prison system through the Puppies for Parole program.
"He provides great emotional support to our patients and their families when they are going through stressful times," Hampton said. "There's research that shows just the animal's presence is very soothing and can help with traumatic stress, but then there's also research that shows when you're stroking an animal, your stress level is decreasing. So, there's a lot of emotional benefits to our patients and their families just having the dog present."
"It's really grown into one of the best things about working at the humane society," Tracy Poston, executive director at the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri, said.
Poston said almost 200 dogs have benefited from the Puppies for Parole program locally over the past five years.
"We've placed animals with families with children who are autistic," Poston said. "We have a dog that is a court dog that is basically there to comfort a child if they have to testify. It's certainly an avenue for them to find a home and to just show people, you know, it's an overlooked dog, the underdog that can win."
And that is being seen in more ways than one.
"Just saved my life pretty much," Est said. "My sanity you know. I've been locked up since I've been 14 years old and lost everyone since I've been here. The dog program gives me something to do and purpose."
"We're inmates in a prison," Linhardt said. "We've had a negative impact on people in the past. To be able to have that opportunity now and to be able to give back, kind of, restorative justice type thing where, you know, you once hurt but now you want to help."
Only inmates in the privilege dorms can be a part of the Puppies for Parole program, which is an area designated for inmates with good behavior.
Assistant Warden Travis Crews said he has seen a shift since the program was initiated at Potosi Correctional.
"We had maybe two wings of privilege dorm, now we have three," Crews said. "In a wing, we're talking 100 offenders. So, I would say that's pretty substantial."
It is also important to note that the Puppies for Parole program operates only on private donations and donations from offender organizations.