by Jody, a released ICAN Handler
I was an offender at Rockville Correctional Facility in 2005 where I began serving a twenty year sentence for dealing methamphetamine. I am a former high school cheerleader who came from a wonderful, middle-class family that cared very much for me. I graduated nursing school right after high school and did very well supporting myself. I was set up on a blind date by another nurse with her nephew. He introduced me to meth. I became addicted overnight. I was then introduced to a dealer and got involved with him, he went to prison and I was dealing to support my habit.
A twenty year sentencing is really only ten, with good behavior, still, ten years is a long time. I didn't have any children, only my dog, who was in the good care of my wonderful parents. When I hugged her goodbye, I knew I would never see her again. She squealed as I hugged her too hard before I left.
At Rockville, I noticed right away they had a dog training program. It was my goal to become part of this program. I will never forget the first time I saw Joey, a beautiful black lab with his handler. I was so jealous! He was so smart and doing everything his handler told him to do. This was my only glimmer of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.
After what seemed like an eternity of studying how to train and watching other handlers, came the BEST day yet…I finally got my first puppy! I can remember waiting anxiously in the visitor's center for Dr. Sally and her crew to arrive. Then, he arrived! He was a beautiful black lab named Buck. And for now, at least in my mind, he was mine.
Training Buck was a breeze. I think he was actually smarter than me! Watching him learn and perform his commands gave me a feeling of satisfaction and purpose. He filled a very large void in my life. In addition, the depression that goes on in prison is hard to describe. In the women's prison, most have children they have left behind, that paired with the 'no human contact' rule makes for some very sad, angry women. The pups we trained received and gave lots of affection, a benefit to both.
The dogs trained in prison receive so much one-on-one training that just couldn't be done in real life. We took our training very seriously. Trainers from ICAN would come out weekly and evaluate how we were doing and it was so important to each of us that our dog's skills were polished. We all had the same goal, and that was that our dog be placed with someone in need. One question always asked is, "isn't it hard to say goodbye?" Of course it was. But that pain was bittersweet, as we just knew that dog was going on to do big things in the world. Perhaps things we couldn't do but this was our way participating in life. We eagerly awaited the news of what our dogs went on to do after they left, as well as the arrival of our next charge.
I ended up serving almost 5 years. In that time, I completed my bachelor's degree and other technical programs offered. Not sure of my future once released, I was hopeful to regain my nursing license so that I could support myself the only way I knew how.
My release came in 2009. I returned to my hometown, Elkhart, where unemployment was as high as 15%. The want ads in our paper were usually two or three columns couple this with being a newly released felon, the job outlook was bleak. Additionally, the fees associated with house arrest were several hundred a month. I never stopped filling out online applications. My big break came soon with a job fair for a new upscale pizza restaurant looking to hire. I bluffed my way through the interview, assuring the manager that I had lots of waitressing experience. I was a horrible waitress, but did manage to support myself and pay all fees on time, saved for a car, and continued to answer ads online for jobs.
I had replied to an ad by a veterinarian looking for an assistant. My resume contained no vet office experience, but I had been taught so much from being an ICAN handler about basic care, husbandry, and kenneling, along with behavior and training, that I got a call for an interview. I wanted this job more than anything. The vet was very kind and generous as I disclosed my past (I was still wearing an ankle bracelet).
I have worked there over four years now. I received above-average annual reviews, raises, and started a training program, taking over puppy kindergarten classes and teaching adult Canine Good Citizen classes. I was given my own training room and am certified by the A.K.C. to teach and evaluate. I work with a wonderful group of people who love caring for animals. They threw me a bridal shower before my wedding this summer, and have become like a family to me. I feel my story reflects the advantages of the ICAN program on the offender's life. ICAN's benefits extend beyond prison, and into the hardest part of a felony conviction, which is not prison life, but returning to society afterwards. This would have been impossible without the skills and training I received from the ICAN program. My family and I will forever be grateful to this program, which is why I will continue to support them in whatever way I can!
Editor's update: Since this article was written, Jody got married and is now a paralegal at a law firm in northern Indiana. She continues to do her dog training program at the vet office on weekends. Today, her dedication from being in the ICAN program, is now changing lives and unleashing abilities.