JACKSON — For a handful of inmates at Dixon Correctional Institute, every other week means seeing companions leave the prison, never to return. It’s only natural if that makes them envious.
But for this group, the departures evoke another feeling — accomplishment.
DCI is home to Pen Pals, an animal shelter that has taken in hundreds of abandoned dogs and cats since it opened in 2010. More than 400 dogs have been adopted to homes, as well as an unnumbered amount of cats that, because they are feral, typically go to farms, where they serve as mousers.
The animals and their adoptive families aren’t the only beneficiaries.
Eight inmates care for the animals, which includes feeding, cleaning, checking for diseases, administering treatment and basic obedience and socialization training. Col. John C. Smith and Sgt. Casey Cooley, who oversee Pen Pals, often get inmates asking to work there.
“This is probably the best job you can have in the whole prison,” said Wylie Vanscoter, 22, who works at Pen Pals. “Nobody else gets opportunities like this to do what we do, I don’t think, in any prison in America. At all.”
No inmate convicted of sexual abuse or animal cruelty is considered, Smith said. Those who don’t do the work are removed from Pen Pals.
A more pleasant job isn’t the only part of Pen Pals that promotes good behavior. Working with animals affects inmates positively, challenging their selfish tendencies, Smith said. He cites Vanscoter, imprisoned for a 2010 armed robbery.
“I’ve known Wylie since he was 16,” Smith said. “Had a few hiccups in the process, but he came down here, and seeing the changes he’s made … it’s helped him out, made him a better person with a little more understanding of other people.”
It’s also given him a direction.
“I’ve found pretty much what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Vanscoter said. “I want to work in animal care. This is the field I want to work in. I try to gain a little education while I’m in here, as much as I can, correspondence courses and things like that. I didn’t think I would ever be going down this path, but now that I’m in it and have worked at it for so long a time here, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Vanscoter isn’t the only Pen Pals worker to take that path. Since former inmate Matthew Eldridge left DCI, he has appeared on the Animal Planet TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” caring for dogs at the Villalobos Rescue Center in New Orleans. Jason Broom is a Pen Pals worker who has completed certification courses in hopes of becoming a veterinary technician when he is released.
“An animal can change a human being,” said Cooley, who supervises Pen Pals’ day-to-day operations.
The program has never been short of animals.
It grew out of Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of abandoned animals rescued from New Orleans overflowed the emergency shelter set up at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales. Jimmy LeBlanc, then DCI’s warden and now Department of Corrections secretary, offered prison space for the Humane Society of the United States, which later provided a $600,000 grant to build a permanent shelter. Grants and the $40 adoption fee pay for program costs.
Having inmates who are trained by LSU School of Veterinary Medicine faculty and staff keeps costs down.
Part of Pen Pals occupies the former prison chapel, providing air-conditioned kennel space for animals that are ready for adoption, plus administrative and treatment space. Dogs that enter the program are quarantined for two weeks to prevent diseases from spreading. The inmates perform a heartworm test, fecal analysis, give vaccinations and test dogs’ behavior, then start introducing them to other dogs in a covered, open-air kennel area that is separate from the other building. Although they like to limit Pen Pals to 60 dogs, there’s been closer to 80 dogs in the past few weeks.
Broom teaches some basic obedience skills, and gets the dog to demonstrate them when someone is thinking about adopting it.
“You show the person who’s interested in the dog, ‘Look: he sits, he downs, he kennels.’ It’s almost 100 percent,” Broom said.
The odds are better for inmates who have honed their animal care skills.
“It’s a very good program,” Cooley said, adding that with the training, “that gives them a job when they get out.”