Woman’s best friend is freeing lives outside—and inside—prison

written by Shirley Hancock | photography by Shauna Intelisano

 

Lucretia Karle works with dogs in the Coffee Creek training yard.

AMY DUARTE’S FREEDOM is rooted in Oregon’s postcard landscapes. As a child, collecting bugs in the high desert. As a snowboard instructor, guiding young shredders down a volcano. As a wildland firefighter, lugging 40 pounds of gear up a mountain.

But one violent, summer night in 2011, Duarte’s freedom shrank to a 6-by-12-foot cell. Arrested for domestic violence, she claimed it was in self-defense that she grabbed a lamp and swung. Her sentence—almost six years in Oregon’s “big house” for women, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

“I was like a zombie. An empty shell, with no hope,” Duarte said. “Hearing that cell door shut—that was the most traumatizing moment of my life.” Two years later hope arrived, in a wiggly pup named Sonic.

Duarte is among sixty-four Oregon women who, since 1995, have earned coveted volunteer jobs as puppy handlers for Canine Companions for Independence. The nonprofit prepares service dogs for people with physical challenges. Some of the training occurs in prisons where inmates have time, motivation and an ear for following instructions. It’s a noble circle—volunteers train inmates, inmates teach pups, pups lavish inmates with love and then give life to people with disabilities.

Here’s the bonus. Across the country, puppy handlers have much lower recidivism rates than other inmates. At Coffee Creek, the rate is zero. Not one puppy handler has reoffended.

Shannon O’Brien (left) and Fivea Sharipoff (right) with dogs in the Canine Companions program. The prisoners selected to participate spend nearly 24/7 with the dogs. Going everywhere with their companions gets the dogs used to being at “work” and focused for when they are assigned to their new owners.

“It’s a notable accomplishment,” said Oregon Department of Corrections director Colette Peters. “Part of it is these women wake up every morning knowing they’re needed. They’re repaying debts to society by helping others.”

“This program humanizes me,” Fivea Sharipoff said. “We live with our guilt and shame. I took so much. Now I have a second chance, paying it forward with what I teach the puppies. That’s my freedom.”

Handlers are chosen for best behavior, teamwork and ability to take constructive criticism. They go everywhere with their puppies, even sleeping in the same cell. “All the while they’re developing skills they both need for success—communication and discipline,” said prison coordinator Laurene Brenner. “And we have very high expectations.”

Brenner and Heather Ohmart, a contract trainer for Canine Companions, have worked together for thirteen years, and are widely credited with Coffee Creek’s puppy success. No nonsense yet encouraging, they train the women and pups over eighteen months to master thirty key commands, before the dogs leave for professional training.

“Ms. Ohmart and Ms. Brenner are setting the foundation for me to be a better person, out there,” said Lucretia Karle, who has been in prison since her teens. “It’s so easy to just go from point A to B in life. I’m learning a new way, and it’s kindness.”

“Dogs mimic our emotions and behavior, and taking care of them brings out compassion,” Ohmart said. “This is the women’s bridge to the outside world. After leaving, they can volunteer or raise puppies.”

After winning her post-conviction appeal, Amy Duarte is free again. She returns to Coffee Creek, this time as an encourager. Sonic lives with a young girl with autism who, because of his role in her life, is able to attend public school, drive, and dream of becoming a forensic scientist.

“This program works miracles,” Duarte said. “It taught me how to love. Not the grasping, co-dependent kind of love you should release. The puppies put me back together, and made me realize I’m a good person.”

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