At Johnstown’s Hale Creek Correctional Facility, ‘sit,’ ‘stay’ become saving grace

Richard Mead , who is incarcerated, trains with Moe, a German Shepard mix from Fulton County Regional SPCA, during his last day of Pawsitivity K-9 Training at Hale Creek Correctional Facility in Johnstown on Friday, November 12, 2021. This is the first round of K-9 training at Hale Creek.

Photo Caption: Richard Mead , who is incarcerated, trains with Moe, a German Shepard mix from Fulton County Regional SPCA, during his last day of Pawsitivity K-9 Training at Hale Creek Correctional Facility in Johnstown. ERICA MILLER/THE LEADER-HERALD

JOHNSTOWN – When Mollie first arrived at the Hale Creek Correctional Facility in Johnstown, she was skittish. She didn’t want to interact with people. She cried.

Rasha Sullivan, an incarcerated individual in the medium-security facility that’s focused on substance-abuse treatment, said he could relate. 

“When I first got here, I didn’t like the environment myself,” Sullivan said. “I had to adapt to it as well, just as she had to adapt to her new surroundings.”

Like many of the incarcerated individuals at Hale Creek, Mollie came from tough circumstances. She’d been abused and had lived in a home that was in such disarray it was barely inhabitable. The difference between Mollie and the approximately 430 incarcerated individuals that Hale Creek is capable of housing is that Mollie is a big-eared lab mix. She was one of the first two dogs at Hale Creek to participate in the Pawsativity Program, a new initiative at the facility that’s intended to give the humans at Hale Creek different sets of tools on their road to recovery. 

Started in late September, the program is a partnership with the Fulton County Regional SPCA animal shelter, which opened in 2012 and serves roughly 180 dogs per year. During the Pawsativity Program, incarcerated individuals apply to become handlers, meaning they get to live with a dog in their cubicles and participate in weekly sessions with a professional dog trainer to learn how to prepare the dogs for adoption. In the process, the incarcerated individuals themselves become better prepared to reenter the community. 

The idea for the program came from Maria Ringer-Abel, the Supervising Offender Rehabilitation Coordinator at Hale Creek, who also volunteers at the Fulton County animal shelter. Ringer-Abel thought bringing dogs into Hale Creek could be mutually beneficial. The initiative was inspired by a similar program at the Orleans Correctional Facility in Western New York.

While pandemic restrictions stalled the implementation of the program at Hale Creek, leaders at the correctional facility and animal shelter were finally able to put it into place this fall. Renee Earl, president of the Fulton County Regional SPCA, said the first day was complete chaos. The two dogs, Mollie and Moe, had such great fear of being separated from each other that they needed to be divided by tables placed on their sides to prevent the dogs from seeing each other in the gym. 

They didn’t know what to expect,” Earl said. “They meaning everyone. Nobody really knew how this was going to go. It was sort of just a shot in the dark, hope for the best.”

Earl explained that Mollie and Moe, a German Shepherd mix, came to the shelter together only a few weeks before starting the program at Hale Creek. She said they were selected precisely because of their difficult background. 

“They carry a lot of trauma. They have a lot of internal issues that they needed to work through to become more secure and confident, and I think that also spills over to the human side of things, where everybody has issues that we need to work out,” Earl said. “And what better way to work them out than through a dog?”

In the weekly trainings, the dogs and their handlers learned commands such as “sit,” “stay,” “leave it” and “down,” as well as fun tricks like “paw” and “sit pretty.” The dogs and handlers practiced all week before demonstrating their progress and learning new skills each Wednesday. 

At the end of the roughly 6-week program, the dogs were so well behaved they were able to sit on chairs and pose for a photo with handlers, correction facility staff and animal shelter staff gathered around.

“It’s 100% this program that brought them from the level of broken, untrusting, insecure dogs to what you see right now, which is totally stable, secure, happy,” Earl said. “They have just come alive.”

Richard Mead, a 48-year-old incarcerated individual, said the program helped him transform as well. Mead said he came to Hale Creek as a result of selling drugs, which he said he got into after becoming addicted to prescribed pain medication.

“They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I did, I learned. I’m 48, and I learned a lot,” Mead said. “I feel like I’m 30 again. I didn’t realize I was destroying myself, and now I know. I’ve been down. This program has been working for me.”

Mead said Moe taught him the importance of affection.

“Any dog can go through abuse and stuff, but you can bring them back to normal,” Mead said. “They can be saved.”

William Close, deputy superintendent for Program Services at Hale Creek, said he noticed marked differences in the incarcerated individuals following the six-week period with the dogs. Hale Creek, which is a six-month residential alcohol and drug treatment facility that builds toward work release, also offers academic programs and vocational training, including custodial maintenance and business. But Close said nothing quite changes the atmosphere like having dogs in the complex.

“It’s just changed the dynamic, not only in the dorm but in the whole facility,” Close said. “Everybody seems to love dogs. They enlighten everyone, and they just humanize what could be perceived as a negative environment. So it just makes people happy.”

Close said there was tangible benefit for the dogs and the incarcerated individuals, whose offenses he said can range from burglaries to weapons possessions to drug possessions to multiple DWIs.

“It’s beneficial for both canine and human,” Close said. “They teach each other things. It teaches people compassion and patience and perseverance. And the dogs actually learn manners and become more adoptable through the program.”

On their last day in the program, Moe and Mollie already had people signed up to take them in. Lexii Nolan, a 25-year-old in the process of moving to Johnstown from Broadalbin, adopted Mollie. She and her boyfriend originally eyed another dog at the shelter, but then Nolan saw Mollie.

“I loved her ears,” Nolan said.

The couple picked Mollie up from the shelter recently, and so far it’s going very well, Nolan said. Mollie instantly jumped on the bed and made herself at home.

“She’s been such a little sweetheart,” Nolan said. “She’s one of the nicest dogs I’ve ever met.”

On his last day working with Mollie, Sullivan acknowledged a twinge of sadness at having to say goodbye to the dog that had been by his side for nearly two months.

“I love Mollie. I just wish the best for her and hope she goes to a better home and is able to get the love that she deserves,” Sullivan said.

As for Sullivan? He’ll get to meet two new dogs slated to arrive at Hale Creek from the animal shelter soon. But perhaps more importantly, Sullivan is on track for work release in February, and he’s looking forward to reuniting with his fiancee in Utica and getting back to a loving household, just like Mollie.

“She’s definitely helping me do the same thing,” Sullivan said. “She gave me a lot of inspiration.” 

Andrew Waite can be reached at awaite@dailygazette.net and 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

 

By Andrew Waite

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