News 12 Special Assignment: Former racing dogs give inmates a new 'leash' on life (WRDW-TV, May 11, 2012)
News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, May 10, 2012
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- They are women from all across our area locked up in a South Carolina prison. They are incarcerated, some for committing some of the most heinous crimes.
How do you find purpose when you are serving a life sentence? You've been convicted of felony DUI, kidnapping or even murder.
Shayna, an inmate, told News 12, "It had been several years since I had pet a dog."
But, perhaps even longer for these women, the last time they were outside these bars.
Just past the barbed wire and gates of Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institute in Columbia, you will find inmates getting back on their feet with help from some four-legged friends.
"This is where we keep our dog food and they know it. And they come in here and they start sniffing around," Shayna said.
Asia has been incarcerated since 2007.
"[You spend] all day, morning, they eat 5:30 in the morning. We're up with them. You have to take them out. They are in your room, if you can have them at work, you take them to work, they go with us everywhere," she said.
They are greyhounds, all former racing dogs.
"We're basically a foster home for these dogs," said Peggy Yobbs, the administrator at the institute.
Christy Gazella is the Greyhounds prison program coordinator.
"It's not your typical foster home, but this program really started with a need for quality foster care for our greyhounds," she said.
Knight and his friends will stay with these inmates until they are adopted.
"I feel like every time we get them adopted, we're saving a life," Shayna said.
That says a lot coming from women who are here because someone lost theirs.
"I was drinking one night and I went down the wrong side of the interstate and I hit them head on and all three of them got killed," she said.
We can't show you Shayna's face, but she is now paying for that crime with a 25-year sentence.
Julie is here for life.
"Do you believe that you deserve this dog?" asked News 12's Sheli Muniz.
"Yes, because I feel like I have a lot to offer to people, to things. I have made a terrible and horrible mistake, and I'm living with that," she said.
Shayna said they are all good people who just made mistakes.
"We do deserve these dogs just as much because we are somebody's children, we are somebody's grandchildren, somebody's mother," she said. "Being locked up since I was a teenager and never having a chance to be able to nurture or have children or do any of that, the dogs are character builders."
They will all tell you a bad decision landed them here, but they will also tell you these dogs give them purpose.
"I have seen some huge changes in these ladies," Yobbs said.
Julie said it gives meaning to her life.
"It helps me to know that I'm doing something that matters because a lot of times in here, you feel like you don't matter," she said.
They teach the women patience. Even if sometimes it's not mutual.
"I know we are giving these dogs a chance, but they are also giving us a chance because it takes our mind from this place, it takes our mind from the things that has happened that have brought us here," Asia said.
Then once a week, the inmates and their dogs meet here to talk about lessons learned and any problems that week. It's a rewarding but challenging experience.
"The love that they have and the love that you give them in a place like this, surrounded by negativity, it helps," Shayna said.
These unassuming partners in crime also help when they leave this place.
"They get a lot of confidence because they realize, 'I can handle a dog, I can get this dog to sit, I can socialize this dog.' They learn so much and a lot of what they learn they can take when they leave here," Yobbs said.
For the dogs, leaving here could be in a few weeks, but for some of these women, that could in years or never at all.
"They are smart animals," Shayna said. "They deserve to have a home and a second chance."
A second chance, a new "leash" on life, which is what these inmates are hoping for, too.
Many of these women say this program has made them want to pursue a career in veterinary medicine after they are released.
In fact, some of who have through the system's program have done so.