ONLY, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Retrieving Independence service dog program has graduated its fourth class of service dogs trained by inmates of the Turney Center in Only, Tennessee.
The dogs are placed with people living with disabilities.
Inside the Turney Center Industrial Complex, close to 50 inmates are training service dogs to be placed with people living with disabilities.
When News 2 first reported on the program in 2013, it was the first of its kind for the Turney Center.
It’s doubled in size in the following years.
“We do interviews with the offenders before they come in so we hear a lot about the guys they have watched in the program,” Program and Training Director for RI Lesley Adams said. “We have had some come in and say I was here when it started. I wanted to see how it went.”
Friday the fourth class of service dogs graduated and their inmate handlers were awarded with certificates.
The dogs are placed with offenders as puppies, living with the inmates 24 hours a day.
They only leave the prison for furloughs with volunteers so they can be socialized with the general public.
The offenders train the dogs to do a wide range of services including diabetes, seizures, multiple sclerosis, Tourette’s syndrome and psychological issues.
Inmates have to qualify to participate in the program and complete an interview process.
“When they said it was helping people with epilepsy, diabetes and it was mostly kids that we were helping I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” said inmate Mike Jones. “I wanted to give back as much as I possibly could since I came to prison.”
He continued, “This is my first time coming to prison. I wanted to make it a very positive experience.”
Jones and his brother James trained and raised a dog named Zoey.
Both men are serving 25 year sentences for drug charges.
“It’s a good experience,” Inmate James Jones said. “I am glad she is going to a good home to be able to help somebody.”
He continued, “It’s like we are helping them.”
Officials inside the prison said the program has a profound impact on the inmates, they tend to be more confident and calm.
“The other offenders see them with their dogs and they look up to them,” Associate Warden of Treatment Jeff Butler said. “I have seen some of these men in other facilities I have worked in and the difference in them after this program is just amazing.
All of the inmates are now certified service dog trainers.
“The change in the inmate population is a calming effect that the dogs have on them,” Butler said. “A lot of these guys will never have the opportunity to give back.”
For more information about ways to help Retrieving Independence, click here for its website. You’ll also find information on how to apply for a service animal.