PURDY, Wash. — Behind six locked doors and two layers of razor wire, Jennifer Palmer cuddles a fellow inmate — her golden retriever, Tanner.
Two years ago, Palmer's only skills appeared to be selling drugs and surviving on the streets. Not anymore: At the maximum security Washington State Correctional Center for Women, Palmer and other inmates are training dogs like Tanner to be service animals for the disabled.
It's a win-win-win situation: It's good for the dogs, often adopted from shelters where they'd otherwise be killed. It's good for the disabled, who experience a new world of freedom with the dogs at their side. And it can forever change the lives of the inmates.
"I've learned responsibility. I know now it depends on me to change my life," said Palmer, 29, who is serving almost four years on drug charges. "Doing this has given me some self-esteem. This is something I can do."
The program works, by all indications. In Washington state, the recidivism rate for participants over the last three years is zero. Prisons in Connecticut, Kansas, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Wisconsin and New York have started similar programs, and other states are considering it.
"It is absolutely the best program that a correctional institution can have," said Nancy Bouchard, associate commissioner with the Maine Department of Corrections, which started the program in October and is expanding it. "Learning how to take care of something else other than just yourself — that is a lesson that is critical in a corrections setting."
In Washington, Sister Pauline Quinn persuaded skeptical officials to start the dog-training program in 1981 at the women's prison across Puget Sound from Tacoma.
Quinn, a former street kid herself, believes the unconditional love of a dog can work miracles.
"In order to change our lives, we have to feel we are accepted and loved," she said. "People may have made a mistake in life, but they can change."
Five women at the 759-inmate prison participate in the program, with another four expected to start soon. Because of limited funds, staff and dogs, the program can take only about 10 women at a time.
More than 75 women have taken part since the program began. They first must pass a 12-week course, where they learn the basics of dog care, grooming and training.
They work at a prison kennel in the mornings, feeding and grooming the dozens of dogs and a few cats boarded there by private owners. The boarding and grooming fees, plus donations and grants, sustain the nonprofit program.
One recent morning, Palmer gently snipped away tufts of hair from a trembling white poodle named Ragamuffin. Tanner, watching by Palmer's feet, thumped his tail and licked the bars of his kennel plaintively.
"Every dog is different, so it teaches you patience," she said, stepping back to scrutinize Ragamuffin's hairdo. Palmer hopes to find work as a dog groomer when she is released later this summer.
Training starts with simple stuff: sit, stay, come. Then it gets more complicated: inmates teach the dogs to switch lights on and off, to support someone who walks with a cane, to take laundry out of the dryer and put it in a basket and countless other tasks.
Only 20 percent of the dogs have the temperament to complete the eight-month training, said Executive Director Beth Rivard. The rest are adopted out into the community as "paroled pets." It costs about $5,000 to train one service dog, she said, and the disabled recipients pay only a $25 application fee.
At night, the dogs live in cells with their convict caretakers. For the inmates, many of whom left behind children in the outside world, the dogs are an emotional lifeline.
They also are a second chance — for both the women and their dogs. Palmer, who said she was abused by her father and her boyfriend, sees a kindred soul in the rescued dogs.
"Someone gave up on them," she said in a low, guarded voice. "You see a dog whose whole spirit has been broken, and you can change that — that's amazing."
On the Net:
Washington's program: www.members.tripod.com/~prisonp
New York's program: www.puppiesbehindbars.com