Love, companionship and a second chance. That's what inmates at the Ellis Unit are providing to a special group of furry friends who are learning how to come out of their shells.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has partnered with the Rita B. Huff Humane Society to form a canine program where inmates are caring for six of the shelter's dogs in an effort to boost their chances of being adopted.
"We are trying to get these dogs used to being around humans again," said Lt. Daniel Livas, one of the correctional officers who oversees the program at the Ellis Unit's trustee camp. "When we got these dogs, they were kind of shy. They were not really happy to be around people. Now they are wagging their tails, running around and really enjoying themselves."
Inmates David Sonora, Jason Stevenson, Robert Edgin, Robert Smith, Charles Hodges and James Dossey have each been assigned a dog, which they take care of 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The animals sleep in the same area as their handlers and are only put in kennels when the inmates are eating, sleeping or showering.
The dorm-style living arrangements allow the inmates to keep the dogs in kennels next to their bunks, which are in individual cubicles.
"We are crate training them so they will be used to it when they are adopted, but they don't spend much time in there," said Dossey, who cares for Lil' Anne. "I leave the gate open at night and she will jump up on my chest whenever she needs to go outside to use the restroom. We haven't had any accidents in any of the dorms."
Dog training programs are nothing new to the state's prison system.
Inmates work with service animals for Patriot PAWS at the Murray and Crain female units in Gatesville and the men's Boyd Unit in Fairfield. Offenders also interact with dogs for the hearing impaired at the Dominguez Unit in San Antonio.
The Ellis Unit program, however, is the first of its kind dealing with pet adoption.
"This is a win-win for us, the dogs and TDCJ," said Jennifer Davis with Rita B. Huff. "It is very heartwarming to see how much these dogs have benefited from this."
The program started in December and lasts for eight weeks. Rita B. Huff volunteer Billy Rowley, who happens to work for the TDCJ information technology department, comes to the Ellis Unit on Tuesdays and Thursdays to show the inmates how to teach the dogs basic obedience commands such as sit, stay, shake hands and roll over.
The inmates are enjoying it as much as the dogs.
"I never thought I would be able to train a dog," said Hodges, who has built a friendship with Romeo. "Romeo was the most skittish dog here at the beginning and would run and hide when he got scared. That has changed. He still gets nervous when he hears a gunshot (at the practice range), but he has really opened up."
Livas said the idea is to increase the size of the program in the future. They are planning on building a small dog park in the courtyard area of the trustee camp, so the dogs can play with each other when the inmates have other things to do.
As the inaugural class heads toward a successful ending, the inmates involved admit it will be difficult to part ways with their roommates, but they are pleased to have helped some of them find a home already.
"The goal was to find them homes and we did that," Dossey said about Lil' Anne and three of the other dogs who have already been adopted by Ellis Unit employees. "The main thing is that they are all being loved."
To find out more about the program, contact Livas at (936) 295-5746. For more information about pet adoption, contact Rita B. Huff at (936)