Prisoners and pooches 

What you notice first in this scene is the bond between man and dog, both content to sit side by side as long as they're allowed.

Then your eyes drift to Miller's standard-issue gray uniform, and you remember that this tableau is taking place not in a recliner in the living room, but rather the confines of a prison cell.

The story of Miller and Sarge is just one of several like it in the Friends for Folks program at Lexington's medium-security prison, and it is one of the more striking narratives in a new documentary, The Dogs of Lexington.

Friends for Folks began in 1990 at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, the second initiative of its kind nationwide. (The first, Prison Pet Partnership, sprouted in Washington in 1981.) The program takes in two types of dogs: shelter dogs, largely from Second Chance Animal Sanctuary in Norman; and private citizens' pooches. The latter category even includes some famous alumni — counting Bob Stoops' dog among them — according to Eric Franklin, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) deputy director for employee development and offender services.

Franklin, a former warden at Lexington, said Friends for Folks is a win-win for the inmates, the dogs and the public.

“People that had been taking all their lives — taking from their families, taking from society — now they could do something productive, something substantial, that makes a difference in people's lives,” he said of the participating inmates.

Celluloid cells
The switch from take to give is captured in the film, directed by Greg Mellott, a professor of film and video studies at Oklahoma City Community College, and funded by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

The 43-minute documentary met with packed audiences at two March screenings hosted by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. It airs at 9:45 p.m. July 25 on OETA, but the filmmakers and producers have not yet nailed down a mass distribution method.

If communities or organizations request to screen it, however, the foundation is pleased to send a link to the video online.

“I would love to see communities throughout Oklahoma, the region and the country embrace this film in book clubs or study groups or churches ... and use it as a discussion point for how the animals in their community might benefit from a similar program,” said Louisa McCune-Elmore, executive director of the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

The stars of the film might even be amenable to an in-person appearance.

"If you show it, we will come,” she said, only half-joking.

The goal of the film, said McCune-Elmore, is to make it available to the people who will be inspired by it.  

Dogged efforts
Inspiration is aplenty at Friends for Folks.

Bill Miller with Sarge

Eleven inmates were matched with 11 dogs, relationships in which nurturing and discipline are both the supply and demand.

“The guys that are in the dog program — learning to be responsible, taking care of the dog, keeping the area clean — they learn to be more responsible, more caring, more loving,” said Lee Fairchild, a case manager at LARC and the Friends for Folks program coordinator. “They start to have a different outlook on life. They become the kind of people you feel more comfortable with getting out of prison.”

Inmates must stay out of trouble to remain in the program; any violations and they'll be booted.

The training itself consists largely of basic obedience: sitting, staying, heeling and walking calmly on leash. The length of the animal’s stay depends on the dog. Pups brought in from the public, usually two or three per month, normally remain for 30 days. For shelter dogs, training can last up to three or four months. With dogs with troubled backgrounds — like those often found in animal shelters — it can take time to establish trust, traits they share with their trainers.

“It's successful because it gives that inmate responsibility. It gives that inmate a chance to nurture something that's dependent upon him,” Fairchild said. “The dog starts giving them unconditional love back.”

The ballad of Sarge and Miller is one such love song. Sarge, whose progress is documented in the film, came to LARC from Second Chance “a nibbler, a licker and highly energetic,” Miller tells the camera.

By the end of their time together, Sarge trots off prepossessed enough to serve his next tour of duty at the Norman Veterans Center. His departure is a bittersweet moment.

“I'm going to miss that dog,” Miller says, his voice catching with emotion.


Investment yields
The benefits to both inmate and dog come at a relatively small price tag, notable in an age when the DOC is rarely mentioned without attaching a dollar value to it.

The line-item budget amount for Friends for Folks is $1,500 annually, most of which goes toward security enhancements and physical upgrades around the prison.

That meager investment is supplemented by donations from members of the public whose dogs are trained at the facility. Most people give $100 for the service, Fairchild said. That revenue stream appears unlikely to dry up anytime soon. Fairchild notes 93 dogs on his waiting list.

All involved are eager to expand the program beyond the walls of LARC. And the “power of film,” as McCune-Elmore said, may be expediting that process.

On April 12, DOC and Friends for Folks officials — including Dr. John Otto, the program's veterinarian and one of its early leaders — headed to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud. They were scouting the final selection for a kennel location.

That program started recently with two female inmates, but is expected to grow from there. The hope is that it will not be the last facility to welcome Friends for Folks; Fairchild said he thought Joseph Harp Correctional Center, also in Lexington, would be a good fit.

Regardless, the impression the program's supporters would like the film to leave on viewers is simple: pride.

“They should be very proud Oklahoma was the second state to have this program. They should be proud that it's stayed here for 22 years through the work of a few diligent people,” Fairchild said. “And I'd think they'd want to keep it here because it works. It's one of the few programs, if not the only program, that actually makes the Department of Corrections look better.” 

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