Pilot program teaches prisoners to train service dogs

Pilot program teaches prisoners to train service dogs (Image 1)

Among the bars, security and prisoners at the Turney Center Industrial Complex, dogs are living with inmates.

The dogs come to the prison as puppies to live with specially selected inmates who spend more than a year training them how to do everything from open and close doors, to help their owners do laundry.

One of the men training a service dog named “Noir” is Ricky Sammartino. He has been in prison for murder since 1993.

“The opportunity to give back to society and be able to train a dog for someone else was greater than to be in here,” he said.

Sammartino and his cell mate share all the responsibilities of raising and training Noir.

The dogs are bred, trained and then placed through the Retrieving Independence organization.

The organization places the dogs with people who have varying illnesses and disabilities including epilepsy, diabetes and autism.

“The dogs come into the prison and they have constant training,” Retrieving Independence CEO Karen Langer said. “For the dogs, it teaches them how to learn.

Langer said the prison atmosphere is conducive for training service dogs because the inmates can spend several hours a day working with the animals.

The dogs go home with volunteers over the weekend so they can be socialized in public.

Karl Blake trained Rex, who has since been placed with a man suffering from epilepsy, juvenile diabetes and an autoimmune disorder that requires around-the-clock care.

Rex is able to sense when his owner's blood sugar is too high or low, and when a seizure is about to start.

“It has given me more patience and taught me more consistency in my life,” Blake said.

Head trainer Lesley Adams said as the inmates train the dogs, they become better people.

“Their focus changes because it is not about them anymore; it is about the dog,” Adams said. “You make different choices when you are living for something other than yourself.”

Sammartino added, “Up until a few years ago, life had been chaotic without change, hope or nothing.”

Inside the Turney Center, the dogs have helped cut down on disciplinary problems, among the inmates training the animals and those who want to participate in the future.

“We have a waiting line for our inmates who are lower in disciplinary problems,” Warden Debra Johnson said. “They are striving to keep from getting disciplined, who want to participate in the program.”

She continued, “This program has seemed to soothe their behavior and make them a lot more caring.”

Former Turney Warden Jerry Lester started the process of bringing the program to the prison.

“I felt like it was a wonderful opportunity for inmates here to not only develop a skill that could help them when they return to the community,  but also have an opportunity to give back while they are incarcerated,” he said. “It also gives them an opportunity to forgive themselves and have a sense of self worth.”

TDOC said programs like Retrieving Independence that add value to prisoner's sentences helps cut down on prisoners returning to prison, which ultimately saves tax payers money in incarceration and justice system costs.

Rex at home with the Bookers

Rex, the golden retriever trained by Karl Blake, graduated from the training program on October 17 at the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Only, Tennessee.

He was then placed with Andrew Booker in Hermitage.

Booker suffers from epilepsy, juvenile diabetes and an Autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy.

He is prone to seizures and blood sugar spikes without warnings.

“I know for my wife, everything was really stressful because I can never be alone,” he said. “I have a home healthcare worker who is here during the day when my wife has to go to work.”

He continued, “Usually a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours at night, I am alone.”

The first time Booker was alone was stressful for his wife, Alicia, because he could have a seizure and injure himself or have a blood sugar issue.

“One instance I had come home when he didn't have a nurse or a dog and he had actually had a grandma seizure and fallen off the bed,” she said. “He had a huge gash in his head and his diabetic insulin pump it had been ripped out of his stomach.”

Andrew was unconscious.

The Bookers said having Rex in the house now has given them more confidence.

Rex senses when Andrew is having a drop or spike in his blood sugar. Rex will nudge Andrew's arm and then either put his head down if Andrew's sugar is low or put his head up if his sugar is too high.

He has a specific signal for if Andrew is about to have an epileptic seizure.

Rex can also fetch Andrew's medicine bag, open the refrigerator to get juice and can call 911 by activating an in home emergency alert system.

“It is very disempowering to be sick because you lose a lot of the things that make you feel like you are contributing to not just society but to your relationships,” he said. “To have a partner like Rex who I can lean on and know can help me do all that stuff is very empowering.”

Within the first few days of Rex living with the Bookers he helped Andrew and Alicia during a seizure. Something Alicia used to handle alone.

“Rex literally jumped on to Andrew's lap. It was like he was hugging him and I was hugging Andrew,” she said. “It was just a big family hug.”

Alicia typically takes video of Andrew's seizures for his doctor. After the seizure where Rex helped Alicia, Andrew saw how different the situation was from when he did not have Rex.

“Her tone of voice and everything about her was different,” he said. “It was like for the first time ever she wasn't alone.”

The Bookers met the men who trained Rex at the Turney Center. They told News 2 the program is literally saving lives.  

“It is not just for my life, it is to give life to my wife,” he said. “It also gives meaning to life of the guys in prison.”

Rex continues to learn how to work in the Booker's home, but the couple already feels like the golden retriever has given them a new lease on life.

For more information about Retrieving Independence, including how to volunteer, donate or apply, visit the organization's Web site.

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