‘Saving our lives as well.’ Prison puppy program returns to Rockview state prison
The State Correctional Institution at Rockview, a medium-security prison for men located in Benner Township, currently holds about 2,000 inmates and employs around 700 staff members. And since January, it’s also been home to four dogs.
In late February, Sweet Cakes, Chico, TJ and Boone, all of various breeds and backstories, were living in a housing unit called Block E. Once they move on to their forever homes, they’ll be replaced by new rescues.
With the focus on obedience training to get the dogs adopted, nine chosen inmate handlers at Rockview make it their job to care for the dogs and teach them some of the basics of good behavior.
Rockview started its first puppy program in 2016, but training new dogs was put on hold during the pandemic because of visitor restrictions. Professional dog trainers were unable to transport the animals and help with weekly training sessions for almost three years.
It wasn’t until the end of January when the puppy program came back in full swing. Rockview is now partnered with Louisiana-based Villalobos Rescue Center, a dog rescue service made known by the TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees.”
Ken Hoover, the unit manager at Block E and the puppy program coordinator, saw the impact of the original program and said he knew he wanted to reestablish it when he had the chance.
“(Prison) isn’t a positive place to be all the time, so If I can do something that helps people have a more positive outlook on the place, I’m all for it,” Hoover said.
‘A form of bonding’
Inside of Block E, with paintings of the former program’s dogs lining the walls, 6-month-old Chico sat on Feb. 28 with his two handlers outside of a cell.
Instead of being a third roommate, Chico and the other dogs take turns living with the pair of handlers assigned to them.
“You get the benefit of having a friend because they sleep with us,” an inmate named Aaron said. “It’s like a form of bonding, and I could never picture myself going home and never having a dog again.”
Aaron, one of the handlers, has been a part of the program for about seven years, and he said it has taught him “patience,” “compassion” and “empathy.”
“You see a dog come in, and it translates over to how you treat people, how you look at people,” Aaron said, “because you got to figure, ‘OK, if I can be patient with a dog, I should be able to be patient with the next guy.’”
Chico’s other handler, Rafael, who hadn’t been in contact with a dog in 34 years before January, said he’s already learning about a dog’s “unconditional love” and how it can affect the atmosphere in a prison block.
“One thing we don’t want to introduce to the dog is discipline, and this environment, it’s all about discipline. It’s all about corrections. That’s what prisons do,” Rafael said. “When dogs come in, we try to show compassion and love. In turn, we actually become more compassionate and more loving toward others.”
Instead of discipline, Dani Barcheers, a dog trainer from Villalobos, said she visits Rockview once a week to teach the dogs obedience with positive reinforcement tactics, rewarding good behavior with treats.
Barcheers travels from West Virginia to Rockview to train the rescues. She said her method of training entails “physical cues with verbal command.”
Using words and hand signals, Barcheers said she can tell a dog is ready for adoption when it responds to both cues, either together or separately, on a regular basis. She also makes sure dogs have grown out of bad habits, like nipping or jumping, and are potty trained.
Barcheers is a formerly incarcerated individual who experienced her prison’s puppy program, and she said this type of opportunity is a learning experience for both the dogs and the handlers.
“For the guys, it definitely increases the likelihood that they would be successful upon release — hugely,” Barcheers said. “It’s a job skill. I can say from experience but also from observation that it helps give people a sense of purpose.”
Another handler, who’s been looking after TJ and working on the canine’s social anxiety, said he loves that his dogs find their “forever homes” when they leave Block E.
“Knowing that he’s going to be happy somewhere, that’s the best part,” Ed said. “It’s the most satisfying part of the job.”
A lasting impact
For most handlers, the puppy program is the best job they can get at Rockview, but for Irvin Moore, the program was more than a job and made a lasting impact on his life outside of prison.
Moore was one of the first handlers chosen in 2016 when the program was paired with New Leash On Life, a nonprofit rescue center in Tennessee. He was arrested in 1969 and had been serving a life sentence until March 2021 when his sentence was commuted.
Right before the pandemic halted the dog training program, Moore was given the opportunity to take care of Fred, a 140-pound Saint Bernard.
He was told that Fred was an impossible case, a dog with no name recognition who only ate and slept all day. But after three days, Fred knew his name, listened to basic commands and followed Moore around Block E without a leash.
Soon enough, Fred became a household name at Rockview — taking trips to the infirmary, mental health ward and “the hole,” which Moore said is the area of Rockview that houses inmates with infractions and more violent behavior.
“(Administration said) take him over there to the hole; it’ll change the mood of the total environment there,” Moore said. “You would hear guys say, ‘Fred is coming! Fred and Mr. Irvin are coming!’ So, we virtually had the run of that place.”
The day Moore found out his sentence was commuted, he said he was overjoyed with the idea of living on his own — the first time since 1969.
“But immediately, I thought about Fred,” Moore said. “I said, ‘Oh, what am I gonna do? …. I’m gonna have to leave him.’”
Just a moment later, the superintendent handed Moore another piece of paper from the governor’s office: a signed release “in the case of Fred Moore the Dog.”
“I just lost it. I fell down to my knees, tears everywhere,” Moore said. “I mean, I’m just like a blubbering fool.”
Moore had one day to pack his things and take Fred to live with him in a halfway home in Johnstown. Shortly after, Moore and his canine best friend moved to State College, where Moore now works for Penn State’s College of Education through the Restorative Justice Initiative.
Advocating for more progressive prison initiatives, like the puppy program, and teaching people about the justice system from experience, Moore is working to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals like himself.
Since leaving Rockview, Moore said he hasn’t let anything get him down, even when Fred died from bone cancer on July 18, 2022: the anniversary of Moore’s arrest.
A day that usually reminded Moore of his deepest regrets now reminds him of the fond memories he made with the fluffy friend who was freed alongside him.
“We were saving the lives of the dogs themselves,” Moore said, “and the dogs didn’t realize it, but they were virtually saving our lives as well.”