On their own, three individuals had the idea of taking dogs to Vandalia Correctional Center to have offenders work with them. When the three people got together, the idea became a reality.
Right now, eight dogs are at VCC, living with and being trained by partnerships of two offenders.
The TAILS (Teaching Animals & Offenders Life Skills) is in its fourth month at VCC, and those involved have already seen significant benefits in that short period of time.
“It’s a win-win situation for everybody,” Assistant Warden of Program John Fatheree said.
Fatheree had seen dog programs at other state correctional facilities and wanted to start a dog program at VCC for some time.
At the same time, Cindy Simmons of Second Chance Animal Rescue had also had an interest in taking dogs to the prison.
It took the appointment of Stephanie Waggoner to the warden’s position at the local correctional center to make it a reality.
“It was kind of a mutual thing,” Simmons said.
“Stephanie had said something about it to others out here, and when they said something about it to Tony (Simmons, an employee at VCC), he said, ‘My wife is part of the local rescue.’
“I had said to Tony (her husband, an employee at VCC) one day, ‘It’s too bad that we can’t take some of our dogs out there.’
“And he said, ‘As a matter of fact, they have been talking about something like that,’” Simmons said.
Fatheree said, “I had been trying to do this before (Stephanie) got here, and when she got here (in April), it happened.”
He also learned that there was a source for dogs after his wife, who works at a school, told him about Simmons visiting the school with a dog.
Waggoner, who was working to get a dog program started while serving as assistant warden of programs at Centralia Correctional Center, said she “has compassion for programs that can help offenders become better prepared to succeed when they leave prison.
“When I came here, John (Fatheree) had all of the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed,” she said.
“So then, it was just the waiting period for Springfield to give the OK. We got the go-ahead at noon and by 3, John had already contacted Cindy, and the next week, we had dogs.”
Fatheree said, “I had been wanting to do this for some time, but wasn’t getting any movement. And then, all of a sudden, here we have some dogs.
“This would not have happened if she (Waggoner) had not fully supported it,” he said.
Waggoner and Fatheree took Simmons on a tour of the prison, showing her where the dogs would be housed with offenders, and hammered out the details for TAILS.
The next step was to find someone who would teach the offenders, and Simmons learned about Ken Fritz, the training director at Jagger’s Doggie Day Care in Mt. Vernon.
Fritz, who also supports this kind of program, agreed to come to VCC for training sessions, free of charge.
The next step was to match offenders who qualified to participate in the program with dogs.
Offenders who are eligible to earn good time can apply for the program, Fatheree said, and those who are not eligible include ones who have committed violent crimes, sex offenses or harmed animals.
“Obviously, we have way more guys wanting to get in than we have dogs, so there’s a pretty big waiting list,” he said.
Counselor Jeanie James, who matches up the offenders and dogs, confirms that. “I have I don’t know how many request slips wanting to get into the program.”
Through the program, eligible offenders apply for 90-day contracts. If they fulfill that contract successfully, they earn 45 days of good-time credit.
“We screen the guys really thoroughly and we warn them,” Fatheree said. “We tell them, ‘You’re in the spotlight now, so if anything happens, it’s on you.’
Waggoner said that while making rounds, offenders “are always asking ‘How do I get in the program? How do I get in the program?’
“The first thing we tell them is, ‘your behavior.’”
She and other staff members have noticed an improvement in the behavior of offenders who are partnered with dogs, and also in that of other offenders at the facility, offenders who want to be considered for the program.
“Some of them have had really bad lives, and now they have a purpose,” she said. “For some, they have never had anything that was actually their’s.
“No one has been there before to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.
“Now, they have a responsibility,” Waggoner said.
“The joy that you see when these guys get a dog, it’s really something,” Fatheree said. “I don’t know how anyone can’t be happy about something like this.”
Waggoner sees that, also. “The way that these guys lit up when they got a dog, you actually got a tear in your eye.”
James said she sees the program as “teaching offenders to care and to have love for somebody, and they actually have some responsibility while they are here.
“They actually have a call to get up in the morning, take their dog out, care for their dog and train them. It teaches them, more or less, life skills,” James said.
“With this, I see offenders having more respect for others. They are actually learning to live together in a room without fighting; they learn to talk things out instead of fighting,” she said.
“Even the officers say that they are seeing the offenders be more respectful.
“Some of these guys have never had a dog before, and they see how much love can come from that,” James said.
Fatheree gives James a lot of the credit for how successfully the program is running.
“She has jumped right in and really put a lot into it,” he said. “I can’t brag on her enough.”
Fritz said that if offenders take the program seriously, “they can even have a career with this when they get out, if they’re good at it.”
He sees their participation in TAILS as “an enriching experience for them. Learning to care for their dogs builds character.
“The results we are seeing with programs like this are amazing,” Fritz said.
Once the dogs are fully trained, they are ready for return to Second Chance for adoption.
Fatheree has witnessed how the loss of a dog has affected an inmate. “He was about to cry,” Fatheree said.
However, that feeling didn’t last long, because that offender received a new dog to train.
“I won’t pull a dog out of the program until I have one to replace it,” Simmons said.
And the dog that is being pulled is more attractive to people thinking about adopting through Second Chance. In fact, two have already gone to officers at VCC, and one is being placed with Fatheree’s mother-in-law.
Fatheree said, “I just like the fact that we are partnering with somebody in our own community. They (Second Chance) is saving dogs, helping dogs, and by us working with them and housing some here, that frees up some kennel space for them to house other dogs,” Fatheree said.
“There is zero cost to us,” he said. “In these times, I can’t stress enough the importance of that.”
All of the expenses, including worm pills and other kinds of treatments – are the responsibility of Second Chance, which is funded solely through donations and adoption fees.
Dogs that are trained through TAILS, she said, will have a slightly higher adoption fee, because, “They are getting a fully trained dog,” Simmons said.
And those who train the dog are also getting something special.
“It’s a very good program for us,” said one inmate, Travis.
“It’s great for both us and the dogs,” he said.
Travis, who is in VCC on a drug offense, said, “It’s not only good for the dogs that we get, it also lets the rescue house more unwanted dogs at their kennel.
“It’s good for many inmates who have never been able to learn to take care of anything but themselves.
“This is a very good experience for me, and for everybody all-around,” he said.