Service-dog training program ends at Hutchinson prison

Hutchinson Correctional Facility (Feb. 8, 2013)
Hutchinson Correctional Facility (Feb. 8, 2013) File photo

Those in need of a service dog typically face 18 months on a waiting list, but the wait may be even longer now that the Hutchinson Correctional Facility – one of two Kansas prisons that allows inmates to perform basic training on soon-to-be service dogs – terminated its program.

“We hope (the wait) never gets up to two years,” said Sarah Holbert, executive director of the organization that oversees the dogs’ training.

But she said the elimination of the Hutchinson program could push it to that point, because 125 people are already on the waiting list.

The prison provided one full-time corrections officer to oversee the program, but vacancies in staffing caused the program to end Aug. 1, said prison spokesman Dirk Moss.

At full employment, the Hutchinson Correctional Facility has 365 uniformed security officers. As of early August, roughly 40 of these positions were open, Moss said.

“We had to make a choice,” Moss said. “We had to pull that position back into security.”

Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services is a group headquartered in Concordia that trains dogs to help people with special needs. The group outsources the dogs’ basic training to prisons throughout the Midwest before returning the dogs to headquarters for specialized training.

CARES customizes the dogs’ specialized training to fit the needs of person it will serve. Some become mobility service dogs for people in wheelchairs. Others work with soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. People with medical issues might receive a seizure alert or diabetic alert dog.

Dogs that would have been sent to Hutchinson will now go to either Ellsworth Correctional Facility, the only Kansas prison still operating a CARES program, or an out-of-state prison.

“When we lose a program like Hutchinson, we have puppies that need to go to other correctional facilities, which means more travel time for us,” Holbert said.

Hutchinson began working with CARES in 2009 and had between 12 and 15 dogs in training at any one time, Holbert said. Newer programs train about half that number of dogs, so the loss of a long-time program like Hutchinson is worrisome for the organization, she said.

In the seven years since CARES began working there, about 125 inmates have trained at least 245 dogs, said Moss, the prison spokesman.

The prison’s master sergeant selected inmates for the program based on their application, interview and behavior record.

“One of the things we found, we don’t have data, but we noticed that inmates participating in the program are considerably less troublesome than some of the other inmates,” Moss said. “For some of them, it’s the first time in their life that they have a positive bond with another living being.”

CARES also operated a program at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, but the organization ended its affiliation with the prison about three years ago.

The rationale behind the cut: Most of El Dorado’s prison population did not have the personality needed to train dogs, Holbert said. Many of the inmates had committed violent crimes or were dealing with mental health issues – not conducive for a task that involves a lot of kindness and patience.

Assigned puppies live in an inmate’s cell for an average of four months while learning basic commands.

Discussion on eliminating the Hutchinson program began early this summer, but Moss said bringing back the CARES program is a possibility.

“That’d be one of the first things we’d look at if staffing numbers go back up,” he said.

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