By Jamie Healy
Editor’s Note: Jamie Healy, Sr. Grant Writer for Best Friends Animal Society and newest member of the Allendale Correctional Worship Center/Character Restoration Initiative’s Fundraising Board.
In the midst of rural South Carolina lies Allendale County, the 2nd poorest county in the state (average household income $25,327) and 22nd poorest in the entire United States. With a population of 10,000, 73.9% are minority, 42.4% live below the poverty line, 28.09% did not graduate high school, and only 14% earned a college degree. The county itself has one veterinarian, one hospital, and one grocery store—so it comes as no surprise then that there are no pet stores, animal shelters or spay/neuter clinics to be found in Allendale County. While resources are observably scarce, a few miles down a side road is an unexpectedly shining example for human and animal welfare in a place you might least expect to find it: Allendale Correctional Institution (ACI).
On a bright and sunny spring day, I walked through the main gates of ACI with zero preconceived notions, deciding that I would let the experience shape my opinion. What I never expected in my six hours there was the impact it would have on me. I found a renewed sense of hope and energy for a humane future, and a deep-seated sensation that this would not be the last time I would see the exemplary group of people at ACI. How was it that these inmates managed to rescue 120 dogs and cats in 2016?
A medium-custody prison, ACI houses approximately 1,200 male inmates and was recognized as the very first character-based institution in South Carolina in 2015. As a visitor on the campus I was graciously welcomed, touring the grounds and bearing witness to the many amazing programs onsite. Within its confines is the “graduate dorm,” Bamberg Unit, which is reserved for inmates who display a high level of positive behavior. Inside those units you’ll find some rather interesting residents you may not expect to see sharing cells with the inmates—cats and dogs!
The MuttMates/MeowMates program is a unique collaborative effort between The Animal Advocates in nearby Barnwell, SC, and ACI’s Character Restoration Initiative. Capacity-building at its finest, the MuttMates/MeowMates program thinks way outside of the box—distinguishing itself as a lifesaving resource within a county that doesn’t even have an animal control officer. And thanks to a group of inmates with a vision and a very progressive Warden who has been open to doing what’s right for all involved, it’s making a huge difference.
The Animal Advocates is a nonprofit organization that started 12 years ago to support the animals of Barnwell County and pull animals from Barnwell County Shelter. Its partnership with ACI has increased its ability to save lives substantially. With 175 inmates participating in the onsite foster program in 2016 alone, more than 120 abused, abandoned or neglected animals were provided care, companionship, socialization, and basic obedience training. Walking through the animal art-adorned units, I visited and chatted with many of the men while there, taking notice of how well the animals were cared for. ACI even offers a grooming program and a supply room that houses everything needed to foster a cat, dog, or even a litter of newborn, motherless, kittens!
Towards the end of last year, a professional Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program was added to the roster, certifying 12 dogs and providing proper training instruction to more than 50 men. The plan for 2017 is to ensure that every single dog that is fostered onsite is certified before returning to the Animal Advocates Adoption Center for adoption. In addition, thanks to a new permanent agility course in the off-leash area, they intend to implement rally techniques and also find a way to incorporate an Emotional Therapy Dog Program into the training regimen this year.
Due to the undeniable success of this model program, South Carolina’s Department of Corrections waived the limit of 10 animals per institution, allowing ACI to take in 25 cats and up to 24 dogs at a time! They even lent a hand by taking in animals during last year’s Hurricane Matthew so that other shelters could increase their capacity to relieve affected areas. There is no telling how many additional animals programs like this can save; but, there is no denying that there are very real and untapped resources located all around us that can increase our lifesaving abilities—such as this model program in one of the most resource-scarce counties of this country. It’s time we take a closer look in our own backyards to see what more we can accomplish for our communities.
The MuttMates/MeowMates program…
is a part of a larger Character Restoration Initiative within Allendale Correctional Worship Center. Existing programs include a 40-day spiritual fellowship, addiction recovery, character development, GED attainment, vocational and leadership development, computer literacy, Art 4 Hope (donates artisan crafts to under-privileged children), sustainable gardening and beekeeping (donates to neighborhood association), music theory, a book club, communication building, a Toastmasters club, and even a quilting/crocheting group. The list doesn’t stop there, though. They are committed to spreading the word about their initiatives and the much-needed changes to prison culture. These model programs aid in the development of our communities, the animals, and the inmates who will hopefully have the opportunity to return to society as proud, productive, prepared, and contributing members. They save lives, reduce recidivism, and help lift others in their time of need.