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

Baez and his companions are among the 130 men and women in Stevens' Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program. Almost any medium-security or lower inmate is eligible, except sex offenders, because of the noted link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people. But just about anyone else—drug addicts, gangbangers, even murderers—can apply if they have a GED and have been write-up-free for six months.

Inmates train both companion animals and assistance dogs, working on everything from basic obedience to elaborate commands like how to hit automatic door openers. A state-certified animal rescue organization, the program takes both board-ins and rescues, which are called CI dogs, for Colorado Correctional Industries, a division of the DOC that runs the dog program and almost every other work program in Colorado state prisons.

Stevens, a full-time DOC employee, runs the dog program in nine different facilities, including Territorial and prisons as far away as Buena Vista and Fort Lyon, over two hours east of Cañon City. Over one 18-month stretch, she put 80,000 miles on a service fleet van visiting all the prisons.

She's an unlikely person to find on the inside. A self-described goody-goody, Stevens was raised in the California desert town of Ridgecrest on the outskirts of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, where her father worked as an engineer on the Sidewinder missile. Horses were Stevens' first love. "They were the first thing I was attracted to," she says. "Even at two years old." But her mother thought they were too big, too dangerous. Instead, Stevens got a dog, although she admits she hardly trained it. It was her first last-chance dog that got her into training.

Her grandmother had a basenji, an African breed prized for its speed and stamina; it was an unfortunate match. Jitonga was a stubborn dog, and bad enough that Stevens suspects had she not trained her, Jitonga would have ended up without a home. But basenjis are smart, and Jitonga took to training quickly, which Stevens discovered she loved as much as animals. "I liked to be outside, and I never minded getting dirty, " she says. Even later in life, she knew she had an attraction to animals in a way most people don't.

A career as a paralegal offered job stability and good pay, enough so that she could start training on the side. Stevens soon developed a full-time training biz and was living in Penrose happily surrounded by dogs. She'd even approached the Department of Corrections, in 2000, about starting a dog program, but this was before the DOC began to focus more on rehabilitation, and she had been brushed off.

One day not long after that, Jeff Kleinholz came to one of her training courses with his dog, a cattle dog mix he'd adopted from the local shelter. Major Kleinholz was custody manager—that is, security chief—at Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Cañon City, where Steve Smith, then head of agricultural programs at CCI, was considering starting a dog program. The missing piece was a person to run it.

During one session, Kleinholz asked Stevens if she knew anyone who wanted to do the program. She said, "I would." Kleinholz was impressed with Stevens' training ability, particularly her mantra that training is not for the dog so much as the owner. He passed along her name, wondering if anything would come of it.

Around the same time, inmate Dale Maynard was doing some wondering of his own. He was close to 40—an age that Stevens says causes a lot of offenders to reexamine their lives. Maynard looks about like you might expect a prison inmate to look. His long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. A tattoo on his right forearm says "Ultimate Freedom" in a gothic script.

He's now 14 years into a 20-year sentence for burglary and assault. He was chucking rocks through a restaurant window and had nabbed a six-pack of beer when the owners, who lived upstairs, confronted him and a fight broke out before he fled.

Maynard is a poster child for recidivism: a repeat offender whose time inside taught him to be worse. Maynard went to juvenile corrections at age 12; he first fell as an adult at just 18. A lot of guys in prison say that, as kids, they fell in with a bad crowd. "I was the bad crowd," he says with a rueful laugh. "I just didn't like authority. I couldn't stand to be told what to do." Now 44, Maynard figures he's spent a total of about four years of his adult life on the outside.

Maynard is also a symptom of the problem. Partly due to tougher sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s, Colorado's prison population exploded from 11,019 inmates in 1996 to 21,438 at the end of 2006 (the state's overall population grew 21 percent over the same period). The average cost of incarceration, according to the DOC, is $27,588 per offender per year, meaning that the annual tab for separating society's wolves from the sheep in this state runs over half a billion dollars, not including costs for monitoring those out on parole. Worse, roughly half the men and women in Colorado state prisons are recidivists; like Maynard, this is not their first trip down.

The response to prison overcrowding is, typically, to build more prisons. One of several expansions being built is at the maximum security Colorado State Penitentiary, where the state's worst criminals are housed. Capacity there will more than double, with 948 new beds when the CSP II facility opens later this year. The alternatives are controversial: shipping inmates out of state, or housing them in privately run prisons, which command a premium fee from the state.

The third way is to try to keep inmates from coming back, a goal that relies heavily on vocational and work programs. The work programs are the purview of CCI, a cash-funded division of the DOC whose mission statement explicitly includes a profit motive. CCI doesn't run prisons, just the work details. But every program, including the canine companion training, is a revenue stream. Some make money; others are in the red. The dog program breaks even—no small feat when vet bills alone top $24,000 a year. At the same time, Stevens points out, the dog program isn't tax-supported; it generates revenue from adoption fees and board-ins.

There are more than 40 CCI programs. In addition to the old standby, stamping license plates, inmates make furniture, design websites, and print state documents. There's a huge agricultural program encompassing everything from a fishery to a vineyard (the grapes are sent to the winery at nearby Holy Cross, the old Cañon City abbey). But there are only two programs where the animals are treated as something more than a commodity: the wild horse inmate program, where inmates break and train mustangs, and the dog program. What sets these programs apart is that the animals are not merely products, but paths to a different life.