Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach conducted its 63rd Prison Pups N Pals Graduation Oct. 6.
Inmates train dogs for eight weeks, which are then given to new owners, including veterans who need companion dogs. The lives of the dogs, their adopters and the inmates are changed for the better.
Todd Wilson, 51, of Lakeland knows just how much impact the program can have. He was arrested in Lakeland for driving under the influence and manslaughter in 2006 and received a 15-year prison sentence for the manslaughter charge and five years’ probation for serious bodily injury. After the arrest he was initially sent to the Polk Correctional Institution, but was later transferred to TCI.
He started seeing flyers for the dog program at TCI and expressed an interest. He had dogs his whole life and was able to enter the program. He participated for five years, starting as a caretaker, then handler/trainer, then became a lead trainer overseeing all the training between the dogs and the inmates. He joined a work release program in Bartow in 2019 and was released from prison in October 2020.
Mr. Wilson, who is married, works for a maintenance company. He also provides dog training services. He owns five dogs (three that are rescues) and he is breeding French bulldogs.
“It was an awesome experience,,” he said. “It was nice to be able to give back to the community and work with veterans in the Paws of Freedom program and working with Halifax Humane Society.
Learning something useful and giving back to the community is important.
“It’s an excellent program,” Mr. Wilson said. “It’s a win-win not only for the inmates, but for the puppies. A lot of them have been abused animals. It’s all about getting them a forever home that they can go back and hopefully have a good life. (And) you get wonderful feedback from the veterans and that really made it worth it.”
A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he was the first trainer for “TCI” when it was a puppy. The grown dog named after the prison still resides there and is the only therapy dog in the Florida prison system. He keeps picture of all the dogs he trained while at the prison.
“I recommend (the program) for those inmates who are looking to better themselves,” Mr. Wilson said. “Those dogs can change your life. Life is good now. I’ve always said if you have to go to prison, you can go in and either stay the same, you can get worse or come out a better man. That’s what I chose to do – come out a better man. It’s difficult in there but it’s possible.”
The recent graduation showcased 11 canine graduates. All but a black lab mix named Roly-Poly (shy but incredibly docile and sweet and available for adoption) got permanent homes after graduation. Kelvin Mansfield of Orlando took home Cole, a victim of the recent Tennessee floods.
“It’s very important to me because it’s going to help me with my mental state, said Mr. Mansfield, an 18-year U.S. Army veteran. “I’ve been dealing with depression and PTSD for the last 12 years. I’ve only been out of the Army three.”
Dave Norris, a USMC veteran who lives in Port Orange, took home Murphy, who was found roaming the woods of Colorado.
“I didn’t think this day would ever come,” Mr. Norris said. “We were waiting and waiting and waiting, but we knew these guys were taking such good care of him and all the other dogs in the program. For me, he will be a therapy dog even though he wasn’t trained to be. I am looking so forward to the rest of his life with us.”
The program brings together rescue dogs from the humane society with inmates from TCI Work Camp, who obedience-train them. The graduating dogs are crate trained, housebroken, spayed/neutered, up-to-date on shots and micro-chipped. Partners also include the Orlando V.A. Hospital and Give Companion Dogs to Veterans with PTSD.
One of every three inmates released from the Florida prison system returns to prison within three years. Through programs like Prison Pups N Pals, the Department of Corrections is focusing on teaching inmates viable job skills that will lead them to productive jobs and law-abiding lives upon release.
A lot of inmates have lost their families or their families have turned their back on the, Chaplain Teddy Key, the keynote speaker, said. “Having something that doesn’t turn their back on them has changed these men. That’s just one facet of our program. It also provides vocational education certificates that help them get jobs upon their release. The other part of this program we can’t measure is the impact it has on the veterans. We’ve got the benefit to our veterans, and the benefit to our dogs. They’ve got a future with a vet or to somebody else.”