Wyoming State Penitentiary Launches Canine Program

Prison takes in three dogs from local shelter, plans for future trainings

Rawlins Police Department officers delivered Ace, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix, to the Wyoming State Penitentiary on April 19. Stephen Hammer (left), an inmate at the prison, is Ace’s handler. (Courtesy photo from Christi Kelley)

By Shen Wu Tan

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The addition of new furry friends at the Wyoming State Penitentiary has been a bright spot for inmate and master canine handler Stephen Hammer.

An animal lover who grew up around dogs, Hammer is eager to teach his fellow inmates how to train canines once again. Plus, he said having dogs around seems to lift the spirits of inmates and staff.

“Any prison environment that you step into has the potential on a daily basis to be bleak and abysmal,” said Hammer, 29, who has been in prison for over 10 years and is currently serving multiple life sentences for first-degree murder. 

Pictured above is the dog training yard at the Wyoming State Penitentiary. (Courtesy photo from Christi Kelley)

“There are a lot of guys in here going through really rough times with their families and just missing them,” he added. “[The canine program] is a very positive program that has really positive impacts not only on the inmates here but on the staff members as well. So, in recent years, I really enjoy helping others and trying to stay productive and positive.”

Hammer is the canine handler for Ace, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix who was the first dog enrolled in the penitentiary’s canine training program. Ace arrived at the prison from the Rawlins-Rochelle Animal Shelter on April 19. Estimated to be two or three years old, Ace has lived with many families and was in foster care before being returned to the animal shelter because of his destructive behaviors.

Hammer describes Ace as a “space invader” who loves human attention, but may chew things and occasionally jump on people for attention – behaviors he is working to correct.

Now, Ace has some new canine companions at the prison: Rocky and Tucker.

Rocky is a 9-month-old lab mix who was originally adopted from the shelter last October when he was eight weeks old. But he was returned to the shelter at the age of six months because he was too much for his caretaker, who has cancer, to handle. 

Tucker is a hound mix and about 10 months old. When the Rawlins shelter found him, he was a stray dog, and no one reclaimed him.

Both Rocky and Tucker arrived at the penitentiary on May 10 and were immediately given to their assigned handlers. The handlers spend all day with their dogs, working on socialization, obedience training and behavioral modifications.

“The shelter’s having a real hard time adopting animals out, and people are turning them in,” Christi Kelley, K unit manager at the prison who helps supervise the dog program, told the Wyoming Truth. “So, this will be a great program for canines to get the training that they need…. When people see all the training they go through, they are more valuable, I think, for people to take because people know they got the training they need to have in the home.”

Ethan Kaufman, who is Rocky’s handler, is new to working with dogs in prison, but grew up in Cheyenne training hunting dogs.

“I’m ready to be hands on, like I said, to give the dog a better life and to be able to be adopted out,” said Kaufman, 32, who has been in prison for nearly a decade and is serving a 12 to 20-year sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide. “Hopefully, it will change people’s minds, how they look not only at prisoners but at dogs that are coming from the shelter: that they can be adopted and have a good life . . . .”  

Ethan Kaufman, pictured with Ace, is one of the inmates participating in the canine training program. (Courtesy photo from Christi Kelley) 

Benefits of the dog training program

The canine program launched at the penitentiary last month ahead of the arrival of Ace. Six inmates are being trained to become either canine handlers or canine sitters to fill in if handlers are unavailable to take care of the dogs.

“I think the program has the capability and potential to be absolutely great both for the community surrounding Carbon County [and] surrounding areas,” said Seth Norris, the new warden at Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution and former acting deputy warden of the penitentiary. “Obviously, [it would] assist and relieve the pressure off the animal shelter in town.”

He added the hope is to expand the program to train service animals in the future. “There’s obviously a shortage of service animals,” Norris said. “If we can take our little space here and use that to benefit the community…I think [that’s] key.”

The dog training program was scheduled to kick off earlier this year, but the city of Rawlins took more time to sign off on it, Norris noted. Students at Carbon County Higher Education Center also needed more time to build dog training equipment.

For years, prisons in general have been seen as draining communities, Norris said.

“I think that corrections is an industry that’s evolving now to give back to communities and see what the potential is that we can provide help,” he said. “We’re taking abused or neglected or unwanted animals and turning them into great pets.”

What’s more, the canine training program also acts as a tool to reduce recidivism and includes evidence-based practices of rehabilitating inmates, Norris said.

The nine-week program will be limited to eight dogs at a time, with the next round of training tentatively scheduled for September. To obtain a canine handler certificate, the participating inmates must successfully train two dogs.

As the master canine handler, Hammer oversees the instruction of his fellow inmates. He previously completed training at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution (WMCI) and returned to the facility for six months to get certified to lead the program at the penitentiary.

“I relish the opportunity to be able to teach others a skill that could potentially change their lives for the better and for them to be able to help out canines as well,” Hammer said. “And at the end of the day, it’s hard to wake up on the wrong side of the bed when you have a dog staring at you.”

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