Inmates at Osborn Correctional Institute watched proudly Tuesday as several service dogs graduated from their training program.
These dogs can open doors, fetch dropped objects and even help injured owners get out of bed, and they learned it all behind bars, trained by inmates at Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers.
“I never thought during my prison sentence I would be working with dogs. It’s a blessing because it has change my life literally,” said Janusz Czekaj, one of the inmate dog trainers.
Czekaj has spent the last three years as an inmate inside Osborn, but for two of them he’s also been a service dog trainer.
“These are skills that I will take on the street with me to continue to do correct things and deliver back to the community,” he said.
Czekaj is one of 26 inmates in a partnership program between the Department of Correction and America’s Vetdogs. The animals they train behind bars will eventually be sent to live with disabled veterans across the country.
The inmates get the dogs from when they’re puppies, and keep them for more than a year, teaching them vital, sometimes lifesaving skills they’ll use to help their future owners. In turn, the inmates get a skill leaders hope they can use when they return to society.
“It gives them meaning, gives them purpose. It’s like paying it forward, giving back to our American vets, people who served our country,” Osborn warden Nick Rodriguez explained.
“These inmates, they full well know they’re going to be judged from here on out by the mistake they made somewhere. Many of them are veterans themselves. They want to put their lives back on the road and in this particular case, the dog comes in and doesn’t care what they’ve done in the past,” America’s VetDogs trainer Mark Tyler added.
Devante Pickett spoke on behalf of the inmate trainers at Tuesday’s graduation. He’s been incarcerated since he was a teen, but said the program and the animals he and the others train and love, have bene life-changing.
“For me it’s like giving back. I messed up, but doing this is like I’m giving back in little bits… little bits and pieces and helping save a veterans life,” Pickett said.