The first night B.R. Hawkins introduced dogs to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, it was chaos.
Hawkins is the director of Endeavor O.N.E., the prison’s incarcerated veterans program, begun in 2016 to give incarcerated veterans job skills. About a year later, she partnered with Iowa-based nonprofit Retrieving Freedom, which trains service dogs to work with veterans and children with autism. The nonprofit had wanted to get a prison program started for veterans to train the dogs, and Hawkins was willing to give it a shot.
But that first night, she said, the inmates were upset, the four dogs kept barking and one guard even tried to Mace one of the animals.
“It was a terrible night,” she told members of the Columbus Exchange Club at their weekly meeting Thursday. “Nobody got any sleep.”
After two days — and a new correction officer — everyone was exhausted. It was the first time since Hawkins had been there that there hadn’t been any noise. She and her assistant ran out of their offices to see what was the matter.
She said about eight inmates were sitting on the floor watching TV while petting several dogs sprawled across their laps. In another part of the room, inmates were sitting on the beds petting dogs.
“The blood pressure in our building went from the pitch that it always was to, a year-and-a-half later ,a steady beat,” she said.
Retrieving Freedom Dog Training is one of four electives the incarcerated veterans can take as part of Hawkins’ overall program. Hawkins said she works specifically with veterans who have never had a dishonorable discharge, but whose crimes range from DUIs and drug offenses to homicide.
“In our opinion, they went off to war and we said, ‘Go fight, go die,'” Hawkins said. “And when they came back, we might have told them it was going to be easy to get through the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) and get your benefits. And we might have said to them, ‘Oh, you can go to school all day long.’ But the hoops and the obstacles and the pressure of war left them in the most vulnerable of all positions. So I believe I work with some of the most vulnerable adults we’ll ever encounter.
“I tell people I work with robbers, rapists, murderers and thieves,” she added. “But they were all military veterans.”
In the nearly three years since the program started, it has served 126 veterans, 51 of whom have been released from prison. Of those released, 38 have jobs, three more have employment pending and eight are disabled or not able to work. Only two have been arrested again, and those two are required to work even more closely with the program.
Currently there are 57 inmates in the program. They’re required to take a series of classes that teach them everything from how to cope with anger and “untangling relationships” to work-related classes like computer proficiency and an ACT career curriculum. The goal, Hawkins said, is to have them “unlearning learned helplessness.”
The program is also tailored to inmates based on the lengths of their sentences and how much time they have left in prison. Even those sentenced to life can benefit from the program, Hawkins said, because they’re trained to teach job skills to other inmates.
“We bring people into the prison to do interviews with (those with less than three months left of their sentence),” Hawkins said. “It is nothing like seeing a CEO … walk in in his business suit and sit down across the table from a guy with green and white on and they have this conversation about what work means, about what work ethic means. And to see our guy stand up and take his hand, eyeball to eyeball.”
The inmates can also take electives in creative writing, religious studies, gardening and of course, dog training. Hawkins said she’s had inmates training dogs to fetch bottles of pills they’ve thrown in her office. They’ve trained the dogs to open doors and flip light switches. She’s had inmates cry when dogs completed their training and went to live with another veteran or a family with a child with autism.
Hawkins said the dogs are just one part of the program which gives the offenders hope
“Our program tells them it’s not what you did, it’s what you do next that matters,” she said.
“We ask them to be good men,” she added, “and what I’ve gotten back has been worth every moment that I spend behind bars.”
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.