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A Christmas Carol 

click to enlarge Paws in Prison image
  • DOG'S LIFE: Trainer Carrie Kessler explains dog training to a group of inmates at the prison unit at Wrightsville. It's part of a new program, Paws in Prison, to put dogs in the prisons for training by prisoners as a way to rescue animals and improve the lives of prisoners and communities.

It was beginning to feel a bit like Christmas when, on a crisp crystalline night, I went to the Rep and was completely charmed into the season by its fresh and moving "A Christmas Carol, The Musical." All the essentials made the transformation into the musical: Scrooge, the ghosts, and, early on, the words the pitiless Scrooge threw at the kinder-hearted folk who appealed to him on behalf of needy children at Christmas: "Are there no prisons?" he sneered. "Are there no workhouses?"

Later, during Scrooge's long night terrors, a ghost presented him to two spectral children, their multiple needs apparent. "This boy is Ignorance," the ghost intoned. "This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware of this boy."

As the miser cringed in belated understanding, the ghost repeated the miser's own words to further haunt the old man: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

As one who's written plenty about prisons, I have seen those two children in the flesh — and by the thousands. They grow into teen-agers, and later adults, whom we fear. We build prisons to house them, correct them, punish them — and sometimes kill them. Yet, we know that most will eventually be freed to try — usually with scant support — to re-integrate into our larger society.

We fill our prisons with grown-up versions of Ignorance and Want and, like Scrooge, are blind to their humanity. We have learned well to "beware" these children, while we've allowed ourselves to believe that — somehow — they should have grown into good citizens, however much their childhoods lacked good training, responsibility and love.

But, as Dickens wrote, "if [men's] courses are departed from, the ends will change." On the very day I attended the Rep, the Arkansas Department of Correction announced a new program that will bring prisoners together with dogs that have been, like them, outcast.

Renie Rule, an executive at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who also volunteers in a prison, pushed to get the program established. To its credit, the ADC recognized the value — to inmates and dogs alike — in teaming up with CARE, an animal rescue group. Here, for both, is a chance for training, responsibility and love.

All dogs accepted to Paws in Prison will come from shelters with high kill rates. They will be paired with inmates who will train them to become eligible for adoption. In turn, as any dog-lover knows, the very presence of dogs around inmates and staff will help humanize our prisons.

Inmates selected for the program will themselves be trained. They will have to earn the right to teach and care for a dog. The dogs will sleep in their cells and be allowed in most parts of each prison, where they can interact with other inmates and staff.

The goal is for each dog to earn the American Kennel Club's good citizenship certification. When dogs are adopted, the trainers will get new shelter dogs.

Socialization and a second chance at life is the good news for the dogs — and for many of their trainers, as well. For those men and women who will never leave prison, the dogs offer the feel of fur, lessons in gentleness, a chance for playfulness and simple wordless companionship amid loneliness and loss.

Our Scroogy little hearts may snarl that prisoners don't warrant such comforts. But prisoners are often their own worst punishers. Their white uniforms bespeak guilt, but many also suffer shame, the heavy chains they "forged in life." They long for the chances that old Scrooge got: a chance to do something good; a chance, at last, to give.

These needy dogs offer them that, along with generous, tail-wagging acceptance.

Thanks to Rule, the ADC and CARE. Without costing the state a farthing, they have created a transformative gift. As some lucky dog might say, "God bless us, every one."

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