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Juvenile Inmates Take HEART (Rehabilitation of Juvenile Inmates)

Jesse Winters, ASPCA


Juvenile Inmates Take HEART

Josh M., a teen inmate on the male ward of the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Omaha, had never seen a dog beforeexcept in the movies. So when Kathleen Engel, director of operations for the citys humane society, asked him what kind of dog hed like to have, he could only say, One like in that Beethoven movie, or maybe like in 101 Dalmatians. Several days later, Kathleen brought him a young, unruly Dalmatian mix whom Josh named Baby.

Josh and Baby had no idea that they were about to teach each other some of lifes most important lessons: patience, responsibility and the gift of giving and receiving love. The pair, along with several other inmates and their shelter dogs, are participants in Nebraskas Project HEART (Humane Education for At-Risk Teens) program.

Implemented in December 2000, Project HEART is a collaborative effort between the humane society and the youth facility aimed at rehabilitating both juvenile offenders and abandoned canines with low adoption potential.

Putting the Program to Work
Inmates at the correctional facility have been convicted of violent crimes such as burglary, arson, sexual assault and homicide. Many of these youths already have a long history with the juvenile court system. Some even carry life sentences. Most serve about one year of their sentence at the Nebraska facility, where they receive a personalized plan that includes school, work and counseling. Participation in Project HEART brings them closer to completing their plan.

To qualify for Project HEART, inmates must first earn their GED and have no violent behavior or incident reports during the preceding six months of their incarceration. They are then interviewed by a panel comprised of Engel; Matt Gelvin, assistant warden at the correctional facility; a mental health practitioner and a member of the facilitys medical staff.

Engel then shoots video of dogs at the humane society who are considered to have low adoption potential due to under-socialization, timidity, hyperactivity or low self-esteem. She reviews the tapes with each inmate and allows him to choose and name his own dog. The dogs live at the correctional facility for six weeks, spending most of their time with their assigned handlers. Each inmate is responsible for the care and training of his dog, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Engel provides one-hour training sessions three times a week where she monitors the teams progress. She demonstrates the use of positive reinforcement for good behavior and helps the inmates understand how their dogs feel and behave. The inmates teach their companions basic manners and even a special trick or two.

As part of the program, each inmate must research his dogs primary breed, and write an essay about his or her behavior and training. Toward the end of the six weeks, the inmate writes a letter to his dogs future guardian, describing the animals personality and likes and dislikes, and then makes a videotape demonstrating what his dog has learned, and how to continue the training. The dogs are then returned to the humane society and placed up for adoption as graduates of Project HEART. At press time, every graduate of the program had been adopted.

Reaping the Benefits
In addition to increasing the shelters adoption rate, Project HEART has produced some surprising results. One development that Engel and Gelvin didnt anticipate was how concerned the inmates would become about their dogs after the program was over. Although Engel made a point of informing them when their dogs were adopted, the inmates wanted more information. Now, with the new guardians consent, inmates may telephone them to share stories, laugh, cry, and ask and answer questions about their mutual friend. This small step reassures the inmates about the future well-being of their canine companions.

Participation in Project HEART has become highly valued among the inmates. Even those who previously had no desire or motivation to obtain their GED or control their behavior are working hard to be accepted into the program. The positive effects of Project HEART reach beyond the inmates and the dogs. Says Gelvin, The entire culture of the unit has changed. The inmates realize they can make a difference in the life of an animal and can give something positive back to the community. In other words, Project HEART creates heart.

Jesse Winters is the Midwest region manager of ASPCA National Shelter Outreach.

For more information on Project HEART, contact Matt Gelvin, Assistant Warden, Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, 2610 N. 20th Street East, Omaha, NE, 68110, (402) 595-2000.

© 2002 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2002

Courtesy of

424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128-6804

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