SC prisons program uses dogs to teach compassion

01/30/2014 7:36 PM

01/30/2014 7:59 PM

A new program is taking off within South Carolina's prisons to help inmates develop compassion for others — a trait that organizers hope will keep them from returning to the correctional system.

Cheri Thompson said she realized during law school that most offenders convicted of violent crimes had been abused as children, abuse that they then perpetrated on others, including animals.

"Almost all of your violent offenders were abused as children," said the Orangeburg attorney, whose research included interviewing prison inmates. "It just became so apparent that abuse begets abuse. It becomes a cycle and a pattern."

That realization motivated Thompson in 1999 to found Healing Species, a nonprofit that uses a 12-week course focused on interactions with animals to teach children lessons on topics like bullying.

"I knew that these children would be different if someone just reached out to them," Thompson said. "If the missing link with these kids is compassion because they're not receiving it ... let's take an opportunity to act on that in a positive way. They're going to see that all life is valuable, and that includes their life, too."

The program recently expanded to South Carolina's prison after the warden at Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer heard about it and contacted Thompson. Now, hand-picked inmates in special dorms at Perry and a second prison, Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, are trained to handle the dogs, caring for them day and night and even allowing them to sleep in their cells.

That interaction, Thompson said, helps the inmates foster a sense of responsibility and empathy for people to carry into their lives outside the prison walls.

"The buzz around the prison is that it brings such a joy," Thompson said. "They have the understanding for the first time in their life, for the feelings of others. It just helps them recognize boundaries."

The program works well for the dogs, too. By developing regular routines and behaviors, the animals can more easily be adopted out to families, Thompson said, thereby making room for more animals to rotate into the prison program. Healing Species also has a separate rescue animal program, which so far has helped place about 500 animals, Thompson said.

Later this year, Thompson said, Healing Species is expected to expand to more prisons in South Carolina's corrections system, work she said will help even more of the state's roughly 22,000 inmates.

"If they can have a rehabilitative experience, how could you be against it?" she said.

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