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FOX 11 Investigates benefits, cost savings of inmate dog training

Dogs in Oshkosh Correctional dog training program (Dave Duchan/WLUK)

OSHKOSH (WLUK) -- Dogs are helping to save Wisconsin taxpayers money. Specifically, dogs being trained in some of our state prisons.

For the past five years, dogs have been locked up with a handful of the prisoners at Oshkosh Correctional in Oshkosh. The dogs didn’t commit any crimes; they’re part of a community outreach program.

The prison teamed up with Journey Together Service Dog Incorporated, a nonprofit that provides trained dogs to help crime victims and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve been working with the Journey program for 18 weeks,” said Angela Kalsbeek of Fond du Lac.

Kalsbeek is an Army veteran who suffers from PTSD. She was paired with a Briard named Echo, trained in the prison to help Kalsbeek feel comfortable leaving her home.

“Makes me feel safe. Echo is my security blanket,” said Kalsbeek. “And Echo has brought me back to living again instead of hiding behind closed doors and always being scared.”

Echo is one of 72 dogs to undergo training in the prison since 2012. Inmates volunteer their time to work the dogs. At the same time, they’re earning college certificates in dog training and dog grooming from Fox Valley Technical College.

“I feel very privileged to be able to have a dog,” said Rob, one inmate in the program.

Rob was at Oshkosh Correctional a year and a half before being accepted into the volunteer program.

Dogs are trained to open drawers and doors for some clients. They can also be trained to turn lights on and off with special switches. And in many cases they are trained to look out for their companion wherever they go.

“He’s 14 weeks old and he’s already better trained than any dog I’ve ever had,” said Corey, another inmate in the program.

But the program just might be training the inmates as well to be better people.

“I wasn’t the best communicator,” said Rob. “I learned how to talk, be appropriate, came down from being a convict to a dog handler and trainer. It basically humanized me.”

As long as the inmates remain in good standing and are able to get their prison jobs done, their volunteer time training dogs can continue. Inmates in the program help to train others.

“I think it’s helped me more understand who I am and what I can do and actually see my potential rather than let past failures define who I am,” explained AJ, another inmate in the program.

Warden Judy Smith tells FOX 11 Investigates she has seen changes in the men involved in the dog training program.

“When I think back when we started the program several years ago, and I see some inmates who’ve been in the program that long time, I see a difference in how they communicate, how they work with others,” explained Smith.

While the program was started to connect the prison with the outside community, it has been shown to reduce the rate in which inmates, once released, end up back in prison.

The service dog program has operated at Oshkosh Correctional for the past five years. During that time Department of Corrections records show 110 inmates have participated in the program. Twelve of those inmates have been released from prison. And of those only two have been re-incarcerated.

That’s a recidivism rate of just over 16 percent.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections reports the recidivism rate of all inmates after two years of release is currently just over 25 percent. After three years the recidivism rate jumps to 31 percent.

Smith tells FOX 11 Investigates the DOC is still compiling data from the dog training programs at its various prisons, but the recidivism rate looks positive.

“From what I’ve seen the many years I’ve been in corrections, I think this is certainly one (program) that’s going to make a difference in those rates,” said Smith.

Dog training in prisons is nothing new. Washington state has operated a dog training program in its prisons since the 1980s with impressive results. Its three-year recidivism rate for inmates in the dog training program is just 5 percent, compared to 28 percent for inmates not in the program.

“We have seen those studies,” said Brenda Cirrioni, president of Journey Together. “We know that these guys change. We know they go from being very quiet, very introverted, to being very articulate, they can present.”

Journey Together picks up the cost for the dogs and supplies, and provides the instruction. Taxpayers pay nothing. And for every inmate that doesn’t return to prison, taxpayers save the $32,000 a year it costs the state to lock them up.

Many of the inmates admit they came into prison with problems, and through the dog program they expect to leave with a purpose -- perhaps even a new career.

“I was a totally different person. It helped me a lot. I’ve changed. I’ve grown,” said Rob. “I’ve been incarcerated a few times and I think I’ve acquired the skills that I’ll maintain my freedom this time.”

As for Kalsbeek, she says her life has been changed too thanks to the inmates in the program.

“The inmates, I cannot think of words,” said Kalsbeek, choking up. “Those men are the most amazing. (They) have given me something that I never thought I could feel again.”

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