Uniting dogs and inmates to work towards a second chance
By Brian Reynolds
They’re sending dogs to jail in Massachusetts. The dogs aren’t serving time for digging up their neighbor’s lawn or tormenting the cat down the street. It’s actually an incredible program called “Don’t Throw Us Away” that is turning prisons into foster homes for dogs. Dogs On The Inside is a beautiful documentary that tracks the relationship between prison inmates and abused stray dogs. Both the inmates and the dogs are given the opportunity to work towards a better life on the outside. It’s the second chance of a lifetime.
Prisons are dangerous. Or at least that’s how prison movies and TV shows—from The Shawshank Redemption, to Oz–make it seem. We asked the Co-Directors of Dogs on the Inside, Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup, what it was like on their first trip to prison (to film, not do time). “All we had were movies and non-fiction shows to draw upon,” they said. And even though other filmmakers encouraged them to, they decided against watching too many prison-related films. “We wanted the story to unfold as it appeared to us at the prison… [It’s] nothing to kid around about and is a place where some serious things can go down, [but] we felt a lot of love, compassion, and optimism on the grounds of the prison and we think that comes across on screen.” The film does a great job showing benevolence in a place where one would expect to find nothing but misery.
An important aspect of any prison system is being able to reform an inmate so they will become better adjusted to enter back into society. Don’t Throw Us Away gives an opportunity for dogs and inmates to help each other in this respect. The opportunity to participate is a privilege and inmates are screened to prevent abusive and violent offenders from entering the program. Candido Santiago, a former inmate featured in the film, was excited and anxious waiting for his dog while in prison. It gave him something to look forward to, and it also gave him someone to take care of other than himself. He highlighted the importance of second chances for both the dogs and the inmates. “I can understand where they came from; it was very important to me that the dogs had a second chance at a different life.” Seeing progress in the dogs was important for Candido, “They had a change in temperament and a change in actions. Some were sad and left happy and it made me happy. I knew that if I wanted to change my life it would have to start now while I was in prison and if the dogs can change, so could I.”
Brean and Douglas brought up some other ways that the Don’t Throw Us Away program has helped rehabilitate the inmates by working with the dogs. “The chief ways it prepares them are through increasing their patience, tolerance, compassion, and understanding as well as giving them job skills for when they are released.” We all know that dogs are amazing creatures capable of giving unconditional love, an incredibly powerful human emotion that these inmates desperately need. Brean and Douglas argue, “That may sound pedestrian to some, but to many of the inmates that can be life-saving.”
Don’t Throw Us Away has saved the lives of many dogs and it’s a program that’s also helping save people. With the success the program has had, Don’t Throw Us Away is in the process of expanding into at-risk youth facilities. “They can pair at-risk youth with stray dogs and begin the mutual healing at an earlier age,” said the co-directors.
Visit dtua.org to learn more about the Don’t Throw Us Away program and how you can help.