KERN COUNTY, Calif. - Even as the conversation continues about reforming the criminal justice system in our country, funding for many programs that aim to reduce the number of repeat offenders has been cut, including the Pawsitive Change program.
The program was created six years ago by the Kern County non-profit organization Marley’s Mutts.
Over the course of 14-weeks, inmates work closely with shelter dogs, focusing on building self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of purpose. It’s now taught in six prisons across the state, including juvenile facilities.
The inmates also learn coping skills and receive substance abuse counseling.
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"The life of an incarcerated pet in the life of an incarcerated person. intertwine very naturally. There is an immediate relatability. First of all, these guys and gals very much feel like throwaway people. Many times they feel cast aside disenfranchised separated from their family and friends forgotten by their family and friends," said Marley’s Mutts co-founder Zach Skow.
Upon completion, the dogs become certified therapy dogs. The human graduates learn coping skills and develop a business plan to have ready should they be granted parole.
So far, only one of the program’s graduates was released returned to prison.
"I think, for me, it helped us learn to be empathetic. You have dogs coming in there that just have been abused, like really abused. They are so afraid that you can you can’t touch them," said program graduate and parolee Nhut Vo.
Vo is using his new skills and connections in the pet industry and found a job as a dog trainer. He hopes to open his own company and hire parolees.
"My goal is really to open doors for other prisoners like myself coming out because I know not everyone has the opportunity I had," he said.
Skow said Vo is an example of how the program can work.
"He is an incredible person and he's one of the reasons why I am so committed to this program, believing in formerly incarcerated individuals. There's a principle in rescue that every life matters that every life has intrinsic value, and we are missing that," Skow added.