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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.

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.

What do animals offer people that other humans cannot? The Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, near Longmont, is one of countless programs that use equine therapy with developmentally disabled clients; riding lessons can build confidence and teach motor skills needed to control conditions like cerebral palsy. And libraries across the country use dogs to teach children with speech impediments and learning disabilities to read aloud with confidence. Even simple approaches, like taking dogs from local shelters to visit residents in nursing homes, have been shown to improve mood and key measures of health, like blood pressure, among people the dogs visit.

These programs are an outgrowth of a relatively new field called anthrozoology, which studies relationships between humans and animals. It’s an interdisciplinary field of research, crossing psychology, sociology, and countless other disciplines to study everything from the link between cruelty to animals and violence toward other people to zoonoses—infectious diseases that transfer from animals to humans. But perhaps the biggest area of study is investigating the connection between animals and human health, particularly the field of animal-assisted therapy.

“We’ve seen all kinds of research with all kinds of disabilities—emotional, physical, psychological—that therapy with animals, particularly dogs, is very effective,” says Leslie Irvine, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado and author of If You Tame Me, a book about the human-animal bond. “It can be a very important foundation for steps like building confidence, building trust, and accepting new responsibilities.” Dogs are particularly adept at this, she theorizes, because we’ve domesticated them for 14,000 years: The way they interact with us has predisposed them to be the perfect companion.

Stories of animals in prisons have a shorter historical arc, if just as illustrious, including German POWs in New Hampshire who adopted wild animals they found while working outside the prison—rabbits, a crow, and even a bear cub. The most famous example of a prisoner and his animal is Robert Stroud, the famed “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who wrote two widely praised academic texts on birds and bred canaries during his time at Leavenworth.

Dogs weren’t used in prisons—other than as guards—until 1981, when Sister Pauline Quinn, a former runaway and onetime prisoner who became a Catholic nun, pioneered what is thought to be the world’s first prison dog-training program at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Today, there are at least 47 prison-trained dog programs in 36 states. Australia and Scotland also have programs. As it happened, the Gig Harbor program became a model for Stevens, who visited it in 2002 to learn how to start her program in Colorado. Initially, CCI wanted a socialization program with purebreds, but she had a better idea: Why not train rescues? Just as prisons are home to society’s discarded people, shelters are full of throwaway animals. If the dogs were supposed to help the people, why not help the dogs, too?

Despite widespread research on animal-assisted therapy, there’s a lack of studies examining the therapeutic potential of prison-animal programs. One partial study, published in 2005, found that inmates reported a powerful motivation in that their dog program was the chance to right their social wrongs, citing, “Programs like these may in fact be one of the only ways for the inmates to feel that they can somehow redress the harms caused by their actions.”

But without any real scientific understanding of how prison-animal programs work, it’s remarkable that prisons are willing to implement them so widely—according to CCI’s Smith, the DOC just asked for a proposal on expanding the program to every eligible prison in the system. But however they work, they seem to do it well. The five-year recidivism rate among working (assigned) offenders in the Colorado Department of Corrections is about 25 percent, half that of the general population. The reoffending rate in the dog program is less than half that again.

The key to its success? Dr. Irvine, the CU sociologist, suggests there are unique qualities to a relationship with a dog that aren’t found in human relationships at all. Prisoners will always be judged by other people, says Irvine. “Very few people trust them, even in prison. The dog doesn’t know their record; it doesn’t care.” And while the dogs show unconditional love, they can also solicit it, perhaps the most therapeutic behavior possible in prison, and a power they alone possess. “Prison is a negative place,” says Stevens, where affection is normally a kind of weakness. If you can’t show affection for 10 years, what does that do to you? A dog makes an honest display of love socially acceptable.

Sometimes, a dog makes it necessary, like Libby, one of Robert Gerle’s dogs. She was a rescue, a five-month-old Aussie mix who came into the program with kennel cough, an oral bacterial infection, and some sort of parasite festering under her skin. “She was just a really sick, beat-up little girl,” he says. “No one ever gave a damn about her.” He instantly set to rehabilitating her. She was on four different medications, five times a day. He even misted her mouth with a squirt bottle for days on end to keep her hydrated; she wouldn’t drink on her own.

Gradually Libby improved, and after about a month was romping around the yard playing with the other dogs. One day, she sidled up to Gerle while he was seated on the floor and searched his gaze carefully. She put her front paws in his lap, and stopped to look up again. She eased a little closer and checked again—is this OK? Finally, completely in his lap, she curled up and went to sleep. As on other occasions—like every time he released a dog to new owners—he nearly teared up.

“When I would snuggle with one of my dogs or wrestle with one or throw a ball, or even if they’d just come and put their head on my shoulder, they always looked at me and I could tell they were thinking ‘I love you’,” he says. “You can’t get that anywhere else. Not in prison, anyway.”

Today, Stevens says that she wasn’t sure about Gerle, just as she wasn’t sure about Maynard. Neither had exactly been model inmates during their early time inside, and both were down for serious crimes. It took Maynard three interviews to get accepted to the program. But Stevens’ experience with the program has taught her to follow her gut. “Of the times when I was not sure about an offender but let them in the program,” she says, “more often than not they stick. Some don’t make it, but most of them do, and a few of them really surprise me.” Stevens knows a thing or two about second chances, maybe because so many of the dogs that she saves are last-chancers themselves.

Stevens’ first thought was that she shouldn’t have taken Midnight. The black Lab-German shepherd mix was donated to the program from a shelter in Lamar, and Stevens had never seen such a timid dog. Midnight had never been out of her own backyard, never been socialized with other dogs, never even been in a car. She threw up on the ride to the Cañon Complex.

After months of patient work with several handlers, Midnight finally began to open up. She learned a pile of tricks, like roll over, or say hello, where the dog puts out her paw to shake hands. The whole time, Midnight’s profile sat on the dog program’s adoption page. No one called for an interview.

A few months after Midnight arrived, another dog, Ruby, another Lab mix, came in as a boarder. She belonged to a family that needed help training Ruby as a companion dog for their mentally disabled son, Brennan. Ruby was smart and a quick learner, but high-strung; she’d never be a calm dog and Stevens knew it.

Sure enough, come go-home day, Ruby wouldn’t work for Brennan. Stevens kneeled next to Brennan, who was curled in a fetal position, rocking in distress. “Brennan,” she said, “Ruby is just never going to be the right dog for you. But if you’ll trust me, we’ll find the right one.” She tapped Midnight and her trainer, who led the black dog into the meeting room. The trainer handed Brennan a liver treat for Midnight. Did he want Midnight to shake hands and say hello? Yes, said Brennan. Midnight held out a paw.

Three other dogs tested with Brennan that day after Midnight left, and all worked for him perfectly. But at the end Brennan said firmly, “I want Midnight.” The dog, says Stevens, is still with the boy. And no one else ever called for an interview with the shy German shepherd mix.

For Stevens, saving dogs was the immediate reward the program offered to her. The program, which is certified as an animal rescue organization by the state, does about 50 percent rescue dogs and 50 percent board-ins, from families who send in a pup for training. Stevens estimates the program has helped about 3,000 dogs since its inception. It’s never enough. “I could do 10,000 a year and still not make a scratch,” she says. What she didn’t expect was to feel the same bond with the offenders.

When asked what they learn in the program, offenders most often cite discipline and responsibility. They can also learn a trade; inmates in the program can take courses to get an associate’s degree in canine behavior modification. They’re all life skills. Discipline can help keep you from getting angry when you get cut off in traffic. Responsibility can help you deal with that guy you work with who knows you’re a past offender and hates and fears you because of it. And both can help you get a job; Stevens says she’s had numerous instances where an employer hired an offender from the program and mentioned to the parolee’s case manager how much more put-together, how responsible, how professional the former inmate was compared to other applicants. But none of that—alone or together—will keep a person out of prison if he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a human being.

By the time the dog program reached Territorial in 2003, Stevens had an idea that there was something going on in the program that was changing the inmates for the better. “Most of the inmates in prison are like a little child captured in an adult body,” she says. “Wherever in their lives they entered the dysfunction that got them here, they stopped developing. To make the jump to maturity there has to be a conscious effort, and acknowledgement that they don’t have some of the skills.”

By his own account, Robert Gerle was immature. “None of us [inmates] was a sound decision-maker with rational thinking skills,” he says wryly. But prison doesn’t exactly draw out the best in a person; doesn’t produce the kind of social skills you need for life on the outside.

And if Maynard was an archetypal example of the problem inmate, he’s now the model for the kind of hope the dog program offers offenders. He can dream of being a productive member of society, or maybe rekindling a relationship with the daughter he hasn’t spoken to in six years, because he thinks he finally has the compassion to make it work.

But his thus-far remarkable transformation begs the question: How does the dog program work its magic? Do the inmates who enter the program suddenly become new men, or are they in the program because—like Maynard and Gerle—they’ve taken the time to examine their lives and make a commitment to change?

The answer, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. Stevens readily acknowledges that the dog program caters to a “higher level” of inmate and thus is set up for success. But a commitment does not a transformation make. If offenders make it into the program partly on a promise to change, they make it on the outside because of how the program enacts that change: by conferring skills like responsibility, goal setting, and patience, coupled with the rewards of work that making dorm furniture or working in the sign shop simply can never offer. The dog program gives them more than skills; it gives them humanity.

It’s midmorning on a Wednesday, and Robert Gerle is working with Freya, a four-month old Lab-Great Dane mix. It’s a cold winter day, but Gerle is committed to the training, to making sure that Freya has the skills to stay in her “forever home,” as people in the rescue business call it. “She’s a knucklehead, but I love her,” he says.

But Freya is different from any of the 22 dogs he’s trained. Freya is his, a Christmas gift from his wife, and Wednesday is his day off. His home is hers forever, and as she wriggles between his legs for a back scratch, she’s his daily reminder of how far he has come.

Gerle paroled to a halfway house in November 2006. After a brief stint as a trainer at PetSmart, he’s now a client-services representative at the Animal Hospital Center, a specialty emergency veterinary hospital in Highlands Ranch. He does training on the side, just like Stevens used to. With luck and hard work, one day he’ll do it for a living.

Parole is no picnic, even when you get six months in a halfway house like Gerle. He’s classified as an intensive-supervision parolee—the kind of offender not likely to be a candidate for release without the extra scrutiny. He calls his parole officer every morning to check in. There’s a 10 p.m. curfew. He wears an electronic tracking device, takes roughly three random drug and alcohol tests a month, and must attend weekly counseling sessions on top of visits from his parole officer (counseling he pays for). On top of that, he’s responsible for keeping his own house and all the mundane but essential things—laundry, bills—that go with it. But he’s outside, with his wife and son and stepdaughter. And Freya, of course. If it weren’t for the dog program, he’d probably still be in prison; his mandatory release date isn’t until August 4, 2015.

When he went to prison, Gerle says, he was still a kid, really. “I was a grown man physically, but my maturity was stunted before prison, and severely crippled inside,” he says. “I don’t think I really grew up much until I got into the dog program. When you’re entirely responsible for another living being,” he says quietly, “when every minute of every day revolves around this breathing, thinking, sentient creature, it gives you a profound sense of how deeply you can impact someone.”

Joe Lindsey contributes frequently to 5280. E-mail him at

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