“Count completely at Charlie Dorm,” the gray uniformed officer calls into his radio. “Thirty inmates, 14 canines.”
This ritual, in which every woman detained in the Lowell Correctional Facility (and every dog in her care) is counted individually, takes place five times a day. The Charlie Dorm dogs know the routine and wait patiently in their kennels while their inmate trainers sit quietly on their bunks.
A voice, muffled by static radio responses, replies, “Number of connections completed. All right. “
“All right,” yells the guard down the hall.
With the signal given, the dogs stand and stretch as their trainers return to work mode – training needs to be conducted, baths given, and reports made that require double checking. The count time is the only time Charlie Dorm isn’t full of activity.
Charlie Dorm is located in the extensive pastureland of Florida’s Horse Country and is surrounded by two layers of 50-foot fence that is covered in barbed wire. Lowell is the largest women’s prison in the south and the dormitory is one of the smallest living units. Originally built for pregnant inmates and inmates with young children, there are now two related programs for dogs: Women with Obedience and Friendship (W.O.O.F.) and Patriot Service Dogs (PSD).
Most inmates entering Charlie Dorm begin with W.O.O.F. In this program, inmates become trainers as they learn to teach guard dogs basic obedience. Hagels Angels Pet Rescue in neighboring Gainesville looks after the women of W.O.O.F. every eight weeks with new guard dogs. Many of the dogs selected for the program are special cases: older dogs that are less likely to be adopted, energetic young pups in need of training, sensitive personalities struggling in a protective situation.
Over a period of eight weeks, the dogs not only learn to sit and stay, they learn to trust again. SHOT. Trainers take the time to understand each dog’s personality and offer an understanding heart to those who have been abandoned or abused in their past. Over time, the women of W.O.O.F. have become experts in long-term cases.
If a trainer at Lowell has an extended sentence and shows a special talent for dogs, she may be asked to take on the daunting task of raising a service dog for PSD. PSD is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization and provides service dogs to wounded veterans free of charge. For the past eight years, their dogs have mainly been trained by the women at Charlie Dorm.
PSD service dogs were brought to Lowell at eight weeks and start training early. Most know the basic commands by the age of six months. Before graduating as a two-year-old, they learn more complex skills like turning a light switch on and off, removing a shoe, and opening drawers.
More than 30 veterans have been compared to a Charlie Dorm trained service dog. While everyone at Patriot Service Dogs and the W.O.O.F. The program takes pride in the work they do for dogs. They also know that the dogs are part of a bigger mission.
Many of the women at Charlie Dorm suffer from addictions and carry heavy baggage from their past. Without new skills and a new outlook on life, they are at high risk of going back to prison. The program provides them with professional skills, and many have become dog trainers, snow groomers, and vet technicians.
The program also encourages women to build trust through public speaking, including teaching other inmates. To enable the women to train in other areas, speakers will be invited to address topics ranging from poetry to personal finance. The days are spent doing team building exercises and empathy workshops so the women learn to build one another instead of tearing one another down.
At Charlie Dorm, everyone – two and four feet – has a past. The W.O.O.F. The ultimate goal of PSD programs is to make sure everyone leaves with a future.