ACI inmates get new lives in care for animals

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Managing Editor

Editor's Note: Per the Allendale Correctional Institution, only the first names of inmates are being published and their faces are not shown in the photos.
Different circumstances sent them to jail, but there are many similarities between the dogs and cats in the MeowMates/MuttMates program and their inmate foster dads.
"Pets come in almost the same manner as new inmates do," said Brian, an inmate serving a life sentence at the Allendale Correctional Institution (ACI).
Brian was talking about the flurry of emotions, such as anger and fear, the animals and inmates often experience when coming to ACI, a state medium-security institution in Fairfax.
While the inmates are at ACI to serve out their sentences for crimes they committed, the animals are there for no fault of their own.
Helping the Animals
The animals are at ACI as part of a program through The Animal Advocates, a non-profit organization in Barnwell County. It pairs animals with qualified inmates who foster, train and care for them for weeks at a time.
It's just one of the programs available to inmates in the Character Housing Unit (CHU), a program focused on positive behavior and teaching inmates skills they can use, such as woodworking and earning their GED.
MeowMates started in May 2013 with two cats, but quickly expanded to include dogs - MuttMates. They now have 15 cats and 10 dogs living with the inmates on any given day.
In the year since its inception, more than 100 dogs and cats have been fostered at ACI by 180 pet dads, according to Vikki Scott, president of The Animal Advocates.
The animals that leave the ACI are either sent to The Animal Advocates' Friends for Life Foster and Adoption Center in Barnwell, to rescue organizations in northern states, or immediately adopted. Some have even been adopted by employees, volunteers, former inmates, and families of ACI inmates.
Helping the Inmates
Not only has the program benefitted the animals by making them more adoptable, but it's also helping rehabilitate the inmates, whether they're serving life or will be paroled soon.
"The goal is primarily to save the animals but a side effect of having them here helps the men," said ACI Warden John Pate, who started the CHU three years ago. "We certainly see a difference in our inmate population that the animals have made."
Pate said the program has transformed recluses by bringing them out of their shells.
That's certainly been true for Jonathan, an inmate who Scott said was very shy last year but now can't stop talking about the foster program.
"This program gets me so excited and has given me confidence," said Jonathan, who will be released in December after serving 17 years in prison. "There's a common bond."
Jonathan was a vet tech before he was incarcerated and has been the program coordinator for MeowMates/MuttMates since it began. The animal lover fostered the first cat and dog for the program last year and hopes to adopt a dog after he is released.
In addition to fostering animals, the CHU program has allowed Jonathan to take part in dog grooming and agility classes, all of which are led by volunteers. These skills combined with his past experience as a vet tech could help Jonathan with a career after his release.
Jonathan said he had no clue several years ago what the post-prison future held for him, but "now I have options. I'm excited instead of anxious."
The warden said that's why he supports the CHU. It's all about reducing the recidivism rate of inmates - or reoffenders who return to prison after release because they commit another crime.
The program is also helping inmates who are serving life sentences.
"It teaches massive amounts of responsibility," said Todd, who is 25 years into a life sentence. He is the assistant program coordinator for MeowMates/MuttMates and will take Jonathan's place after he's released in a few months.
Todd said he and the other pet dads are vested in the program and care for their animals, even worrying about them like a parent does for children.
Brian, who teaches a leadership class to his fellow inmates and is one of the original CHU coordinators, said the CHU program is changing the prison mentality, which is resolving conflict with violence. "What we have here is the total opposite. We're fostering a pro-social environment," he said, citing how fights and thefts are not a problem in the CHU dorms like they can be in non-CHU dorms. "It's one of the safest, productive environments."
There's an accountability process for anyone who breaks the CHU's social contract, a paper all CHU inmates sign outlining 10 roles of respect. Inmates are first encouraged to work out any disagreements by themselves in a non-accusatory way before involving supervisors or ACI staff, which Brian said happens about 99 percent of the time in the CHU dorm.
"Those guys really do take things seriously," said Scott with The Animal Advocates. "It's about responsibility."
Barry, who has been in prison 18 years, recalls how his foster cat Domino hopped in his lap one day after he'd been caring for him for a few weeks. While this may not seem extraordinary, Barry said Domino is a real tom cat and had never sat in his lap before. "I just started crying. It made a world of difference," said Barry, another original CHU coordinator.
While he and Brian are serving life sentences, they've teamed up to start a Man to Man program aimed at preventing others from winding up in their situations. "We want to stand up and say stop the violence. We want them to take the moral high ground."
Eight unofficial gang leaders, who are not in the CHU dorm, recently came to ACI officials expressing an interest in change after seeing the effects CHU has made in other inmates. "They're looking for change," said Pate.
The warden added that they are contemplating expanding the animal fostering program to inmates in the second CHU dorm to help even more animals and inmates.
Giving Back
Many inmates in the CHU are not only fostering animals, but using their talents to raise funds for their furry friends.
Some are sewing used pet food bags into handbags and purses, while others are creating leashes, harnesses and collars out of leather. These items are being sold at The Animal Advocates' Pick of the Litter store in downtown Barnwell to raise funds for the animals.
Several inmates have used their own money to purchase equipment and supplies to make items for the animals, including grooming equipment to use in their grooming room. One inmate recently made a wooden dog bed out of red cedar. Raffle tickets are being sold at Pick of the Litter and the bed will be raffled September 20.
Other ideas are currently being looked at to expand the CHU's programs and give back to the community, including partnering with a children's hospital to help sick children. Scott said they would like to have an artistic inmate draw the child's favorite superhero and bring an animal for the child to pet.
Not all ACI inmates are open to change, but the ones who are really are committed to making a positive difference.
"We are blessed to have it," said Todd.
Reaching Out
The philosophy of CHU could be expanding to other facilities in the state's correctional system.
Gov. Nikki Haley recently toured ACI after hearing about the CHU programs.
"She was very appreciative of what we're doing," said Warden Pate. "She wants Allendale to be the prototype for other institutions."
Jonathan, Todd, Barry and Brian all agreed they would love to see the opportunities they've been given expanded to inmates at prisons across the state, though they admitted it's going to take time.
"The institution has to be ready for it," said Todd, adding how there must be leaders who think differently, like Pate has.
"He has opened doors and let our dreams be reality," said Barry.
Pate said he'd also like to see this concept implemented across the state because "warehousing of inmates is not the way to go anymore." He gives credit to the program's success to the inmates and volunteers who embraced the idea.
"It takes all of us," he said of welcoming others to volunteer.