Prison PUP Program – An Update

August 9, 2023

Program background

From 1976 to 1998, NEADS dogs were trained on campus by our trainers with the help of full-time puppy raisers and volunteers. As the demand for Service Dogs increased, so did the need for a way to train more dogs for more clients. In 1998, NEADS began its Prison PUP Program (PPP) at NCCI in Gardner. Today, NEADS is in 4 prisons in MA and 1 in RI. 

The inmate handlers

We begin with a limited pool of candidates from any correctional institution. Each inmate who applies must meet certain criteria in behavioral history and must make a 12-18 month commitment. This means our most successful programs are in medium security facilities, where sentences tend to be longer. 

The men and women who are selected are usually described as model inmates with exceptional records. 

Inmates will not be accepted into the PPP if they are affiliated with a gang, have strikes on their record while in prison, or have committed a violent crime. 

PPP by the numbers

In mid-2019, NEADS was in 6 prisons in MA and 1 in RI, with approximately 75 dogs in the program. By the time Covid hit, in March 2020, we were down to 63 available slots, with 56 of them filled. Today, more than 3 years after going back into the prisons, we have 34 available slots for our dogs. We have left Framingham, and the Devens program closed.

The impact of prison reform

Recent trends in prison reform have impacted our program in several ways:

  • Fewer people are being incarcerated;
  • Incarcerated individuals are in prison for shorter periods of time (shorter sentences = fewer dogs trained per handler) and are being moving to shorter-time prisons (from medium to minimum prisons);  
  • Inmates can earn time off their sentences by participating in certain programs offered, like the NEADS Prison PUP Program; and
  • A larger percentage of the prison population is incarcerated for crimes that would make them ineligible for our program

All this means we have fewer candidates to choose from and, ultimately, fewer slots available for our dogs. In Framingham, for example, when we first started the program, there were 800 women in the prison; as we were leaving, the population was down to 250, many of whom did not qualify for the program. 

Even before Covid, we were seeing a downward trend in the prison population and had started to build our full-time raiser program to address the reduction of available training slots. The closing of prisons during Covid only accelerated our need for full-time raisers. 

What NEADS is doing 

We are working on several fronts to maintain and increase the number of dogs in training and, ultimately, those who graduate and can be matched with a client.

Current PPP prisons: The PPP is a proven program that is critical to our efforts to increase the number of dogs that graduate and that can be matched with clients. From the trainers to the CEO, NEADS is in regular communication with the DOC and other prison agencies to try to increase the available slots and number of appropriate inmate candidates in our current facilities.

New PPP locations: We are meeting with representatives from other prisons and jails to build new relationships as we continually look for additional places to expand the program. We are also bringing in outside consultants to help us build these relationships, all with the goal of increasing the number of prisons and slots for the program. 

String Training*: To address the shortage of prison slots, we have expanded our training team and also our “string trainer” program. Through this program, each NEADS trainer is responsible for the finish training of 3 to 4 dogs on the NEADS campus. The string dog resides in the Hawkins Canine Center during the work week and usually goes out for the weekend with a Weekend Puppy Raiser.

Growth of Full-Time Raiser program: Full-Time Raisers are primarily responsible for basic obedience training and socialization. They typically have the dog until it is 14 to 16 months old, at which time the dog completes its final task training either in prison or with a NEADS trainer. We’ve made improvements to our full-time raiser program to increase success. Recruiting enough Full-Time Raisers is an ongoing challenge, so we are considering additional ways to grow this program.

*What is String Training? The term ,“a string of dogs”  came from the way our dogs were trained when we first opened the Princeton campus.  We had a limited prison program at that time.  Each trainer had 7-9 dogs that lived on campus and were trained daily by that trainer.  These dogs were called the trainer’s string of dogs. We have continued to use “string dog” to identify a dog assigned to a specific trainer that is  being trained on campus after it leaves the Full-Time Raiser program and continues into final task training.