PACIFIC, Mo. — The inmates sat quietly on a recent Wednesday, watching intently as each Stray Rescue dog was led into a room at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center.
It was the first time they saw the dogs that will share their cells, and most aspects of their lives, for the next three months.
“They all come from horrible backgrounds,” Randy Grim, the rescue group’s founder, told them. The dogs had lived on the streets, been abused, been sick.
They need help, and a lot of time and a lot of patience, to make them adoptable.
That’s where the inmates come in.
One by one, each dog’s name was called with the names of the two cellmates paired with it through the Puppies for Parole program.
It’s the first time Stray Rescue of St. Louis has participated.
The inmates at the medium-security prison will teach seven Stray Rescue dogs basic obedience and socialization skills in hopes of getting the dogs certified as “canine good citizens.”
The dogs will sleep in crates in the inmates’ cells and can go with the inmates to most places around the prison, but not to the visitors’ area or to the cafeteria.
They will be made available for adoption through Stray Rescue after completing the program.
More than 2,000 Puppies for Parole dogs have been adopted, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. The program is funded by donations and receives no tax money.
“Stray Rescue is all about second chances, and I would think that’s how it is here,” Grim said.
The Pacific, Mo., prison has been without rescue dogs for about a year, and they’ve been sorely missed, said Warden Jennifer Sachse.
“They have a calming effect,” she said, recalling an elderly inmate who hadn’t touched a dog in years and cried when he got to pet one.
The inmates beamed as they led the leashed dogs outside, stooping to scratch their ears and laughing when the dogs clamored for attention.
“We really appreciate this,” said Chris Smith, who is paired with Ralph, a 2-year-old terrier and Boxer mix, as he walked by Grim.
Smith, who is serving a 15-year sentence for second-degree murder, trained four dogs through the Puppies for Parole program while in another prison.
The dogs require the most patience in the first weeks as they adjust to their new surroundings, he said. Officers allow the inmates to take the dogs outside as needed when teaching house-training.
“It’s a way to give back to the community,” said Smith, 37.
David Ross also has experience with the program — he fondly remembers Lila, the black Labrador he trained.
“I felt so much joy when she was adopted,” said Ross, 45, who is serving a 10-year sentence for burglary. Still, he said the dog’s departure was bittersweet.
He and his cellmate Jose Cintron were paired Wednesday with Ruby, a shy pit bull-terrier mix Grim found on the streets of St. Louis.
“It benefits the dog, but it benefits us, too,” said Cintron, 55, who is serving an eight-year sentence for theft and already worries that it will be hard to part with Ruby when the time comes.