Pen Pals

It’s rare for a tiny bundle of joy to be delivered at Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI).

But for nearly nine months, the staff and inmates of the medium-security men’s prison have eagerly awaited the arrival of four little nippers.

As the specially bred retriever puppies are spirited through the front gates, DCI becomes one of four prisons in the southeastern United States selected to be puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence. Celebrated by author Dean Koontz in A Big Little Life, the California-based nonprofit provides highly trained dogs—free of charge—to children and adults with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, autism, hearing impairments and arthritis.

It’s the latest development in a pilot program that already provides inmates with career skills, rural communities with a shelter for homeless animals and the public with quality pets.

The inspiration for the canine- and cat-friendly campus first appeared as a Pomeranian paddling through the floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina.

Within 48 hours of the storm’s landfall, Secretary of Corrections James M. “Jimmy” LeBlanc, then warden of DCI, and his state prisons boss predecessor Richard Stadler were in New Orleans to establish a temporary jail and evacuate 7,000 prisoners. The plight of the city’s animals had yet to be realized when the supervisors plucked “Evac,” a copper-colored pup, from beneath an I-10 overpass. But by the time LeBlanc and Stadler visited the understaffed and overwhelmed Lamar-Dixon shelter, there was no doubt the prison system had the capacity to provide refuge for hundreds of displaced animals.

“We’re in the canine business already,” LeBlanc explains. “All of our prisons have canine operations—training tracking dogs and drug dogs. So, this kind of fit the mold for us to move that on to another level.”

Within weeks, Lamar-Dixon’s Humane Society of the United States command transferred a Noah’s ark of New Orleans animals—dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and geese—to a converted barn nestled in the rolling hills of DCI’s property. When Hurricane Gustav blew in three years later, DCI again served as temporary shelter for pets evacuated from the Lafourche Parish Animal Shelter. The Jackson prison remains part of the Department of Agriculture’s hurricane shelter network.

Impressed by the prison’s commitment to animal care, HSUS forged a cooperative agreement with DCI and LSU vet school and donated $600,000 for the construction of a permanent animal shelter, which opened in August 2010. While the price tag for similar shelters might eclipse $1 million, construction costs hovered around $500,000 due to the availability and skills of DCI’s inmate workforce. Likewise, since supervised vet students render much of the medical care and inmates handle the daily care and kennel cleaning, DCI is able to provide $260,000 in animal care services at a cost of $110,000.

The first and only animal shelter in rural East Feliciana Parish, the main building can house 52 dogs and 32 cats with an additional 204 kennels in the evacuation center, which doubles as a quarantine for new intakes. Once admitted to the no-kill shelter, animals remain until a permanent home is found. One year after opening, DCI had admitted 153 dogs and 76 cats while adopting out 69 canines and 59 felines.

While DCI may be the first state prison that’s gone to the dogs, it won’t be the last. LeBlanc hopes to extend the program to other rural parishes.

“Our animal shelters throughout our state [struggle] with funding,” he says. “This is a way we can expand our services throughout our communities.

“We have 12 [state] prisons and 104 parish prisons. We need to be looking at this as an avenue to reduce the cost [of running a shelter], to manage our [prison] population and to help animals. The inmate [labor] reduces the cost of caring for animals, so you can afford to house them.”

Although the offender and local populations—and soon individuals with disabilities across the nation—benefit from DCI’s pet programs, none of the shelter funding originates from the state. In fact, shortly after its construction, the new shelter incorporated as Pen Pals Inc. Dog & Cat Adoption Center to become eligible for grants and donations. So, its survival and expansion depends on LeBlanc’s ability to marshal resources.

“We have to find a way to get some longevity out of this,” he says. “We’re not going to let it fail. I have 37 years here, and I won’t retire until I know that it’s guaranteed to live on forever. For the community, for the animals, for the staff, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s win-win-win anyway you look at it. There’s not a down side to this at all.”