Of Canines and Convicts

A one-woman army and a handful of unwanted dogs may be the best hope of rehabilitation for Colorado's ever-growing prison population.

April 2008

Click here to view a slideshow of convicts with their.

When Robert Gerle fell down, he fell hard. That's what they call it in prison, inmates and staff alike; not "committed a crime." You fell down.

Maybe it's a way of softening the reminder—as harsh and omnipresent as the green two-piece jumpsuits prisoners wear at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City—of what a man has done to get here.

The oldest prison in Colorado, Territorial is an imposing jumble of tall sandstone walls topped by two coils of razor wire. It's all hard edges, fences and guards—even the small greensward is accompanied by signs telling inmates to KEEP OFF THE GRASS. Guys like Gerle don't end up in a medium-security state pen like Territorial for shoplifting; the men here committed serious crimes. They're not as hard a bunch as those at the max-security Colorado State Pen, just down the road, but at Territorial meth runners rub elbows with murderers and rapists. There are no accountants in here for embezzlement.

In 1996, Gerle, then 21, pulled a gun on a cop during a traffic stop, then led officers on a four-county chase that ended only when he crashed the car. He climbed out of the wreck and kept running on foot, until he wound up cornered at gunpoint by a state patroller. He got 50 years for the assault and a laundry list of other offenses like burglary and theft. All of which made Gerle just another five-digit number at Territorial—86009 to be exact—in a system where most just disappear.

Maybe saying "I fell down" is a way for inmates to cope with the choices that landed them in prison. It could be a euphemism used to avoid responsibility for their crimes. Or perhaps, just as the word penitentiary implies remorse and forgiveness, it means that a criminal isn't irredeemable. Maybe it means he can stand up again.

Opinions on the primary purpose of prison vary. For most, it's punishment. For others, it's a way to separate out society's wolves so they can't prey on the innocent. Locked away behind the thick stone walls at Territorial, there is little to do other than lift weights in the yard, buy snacks at the canteen on meager inmate pay, or deal with prison politics. Society's vengeance, it seems, is enforced boredom.

But for a third group, prison's most important role is simply to ensure that people don't end up back there again. It's a relatively novel approach, and one that only came to the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) in the last decade—an approach championed by wardens like James Abbott, who's run Territorial since 2003. And politicians like Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who, along with DOC head Ari Zavaras, have committed to reducing recidivism to stem the frightening growth of the prison population. Or criminal psychologists and social workers, who want to break the cycle of prison producing only better prisoners.

And then there is Debi Stevens, who is none of these things. The 55-year-old former paralegal has no formal training in criminal justice, psychology, business administration, or any of the other backgrounds common in the correctional industry. But the program she runs for the Colorado state prisons may be the most effective tool for ensuring that inmates, once released, never commit another crime, never come back. Stevens is a trainer—of dogs, by profession, but of people, too.

It's a crisp January morning, and Mr. Guenther, a tall, slightly balding inmate with a hangdog expression, is leading 15 other offenders and their dogs through a series of warm-ups for the morning training session. As Guenther barks out commands, the trainers walk their dogs in a line, stop suddenly, then reverse direction. Stevens, nearby, watches approvingly, occasionally pulling an inmate aside to offer a word of advice.

It's a motley crew, the inmates all dressed in green two-piece jail uniforms covered with a tan canvas jacket. The dogs include a Weimaraner, an Australian shepherd, and two adorable 16-week-old Labrador retriever puppies, one brown and one yellow, who are littermates.

One inmate, Mr. Baez, is new to the program, and it shows. He's got his dog, a cocker spaniel, on a tight lead and seems hesitant with the commands. The dog, sensing her trainer's inexperience, isn't cooperating. Because Baez is new, Stevens calls him over and quietly gives him a few pointers—how to hold the leash, how to get a dog to sit when it doesn't want to, how to be calm so the dog knows who's in control.

Stevens doesn't exactly cut a commanding figure among the inmates. She has wavy brown hair and a pleasant, open face that's a touch weathered by years spent outdoors with dogs and horses. There's a quiet, businesslike manner about her, underlined by her habit of addressing each offender with propriety: "Mr. Guenther" or "Mr. Baez." Outside these walls, she's modest but witty; inside, she's confident and professionally detached, focused solely on the job of training the dogs. Baez listens intently, nodding now and then as she talks.

Visibly relaxed by the lesson, Baez returns to the line with a slightly firmer, surer hand. "Every one of these guys in here started out in the same place as Mr. Baez," says Stevens as she returns to her oversight. She's shaping them to be like the confident Guenther, and to be something more.