Wisconsin inmates get unique opportunity to raise dogs: ‘I’m learning how to care, how to give’

OSHKOSH -- Inmates at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution have a unique opportunity to give back to the community. The program also teaches the men how to be responsible for themselves and others.

Oshkosh Correctional Institution

We use words like "reform" and "rehabilitate," but there is no doubt prison is a place for punishment. Where we lock away dangerous criminals, sometimes for life.

Two-thousand inmates are locked up at the Oshkosh correctional facility; most committed violent crimes. Still, prison officials agreed to let inmates raise dogs.

“That’s something I thought I would have never told you I was going to do in my entire life”, explained Brenda Cirricione.

Cirricione is the head trainer at Journey Together Service Dogs, a non-profit that provides free service dogs to Wisconsin residents with PTSD.

Inmates, chosen by prison staff and under Cirricione’s supervision, teach the dogs everything from basic obedience, to how to open drawers and retrieve items and comfort an anxious owner.

The puppies can live at the prison for up to two years; at no cost to the taxpayer. Community members donate supplies and dollars for veterinary care. Inmates alone are responsible for feeding and grooming the dogs and making sure their cell is "puppy proof." The dogs are eager to learn, as are the inmates.

“A lot of them will tell us 'I’ve never been responsible for anyone but myself, and I didn’t make the best choices.' They say 'this is the first time I’ve been responsible for anything in my life and I want to show and prove that I can do it,'" explained Sgt. Karen Cadott.

At 37, Jeff has already served more time in solitary confinement than he lived as a free man. A jury convicted Jeff of first degree intentional homicide, armed robbery and armed burglary. He’s serving a life sentence. Raising a dog, to help make a stranger’s life better, is Jeff’s chance for redemption.

“I destroyed my life. I destroyed these peoples’ lives. The family. Their friends. I destroyed a lot of lives. In here, in prison for the rest of your life, I’m like 'man, I really screwed up.' You don’t know when you’re gonna get a second chance,” Jeff said.

Inmates in the service dog program earn a vocational certificate, something Deputy Warden Jim Zanon believes will help these men find employment after they are released.

“I’d like to hope so. This is just another tool they can use and another opportunity for us to give them some tools," Zanon said.

Jeff may never get out. He’s not eligible for parole for another five years, and even Jeff admits, after taking a life, he might not deserve it.

The dogs give Jeff reason to hope.

“I’m learning how to care, how to give, how to love other people," Jeff said. "By giving to others, there is a reward in that. I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels good.”

At the end of the day, feeling good about ourselves is something humans crave. Whether you’re a free man or locked up behind bars.