To See: Prison Dogs Documentary
The central spotlight is on Puppies Behind Bars, a program founded by Gloria Gilbert Stoga, that teaches prison inmates to train service dogs for disabled veterans, both the physically injured and those suffering from PTSD. In Prison Dogs, Peltz and Gandbhir trace the process, following three prisoners incarcerated at Fishkill State Correctional Facility in New York for murder and armed robbery as they receive the canines and train them behind bars to do 95 different commands, including pulling a blanket off someone having a nightmare. The documentary spends time with the veterans, too, and the dogs’ impact on their lives is no less emotional. (Our tip: Have tissues handy when the puppies are transferred from their prison trainers to the vets.) Heartbreaking and heartwarming, Prison Dogs is a must-see. Here, Perri tells us all about it.
My partner Geeta Gandbhir and I were looking for a story that could put a human face on the unacceptably high prison recidivism levels. While we know one program will never solve all recidivism issues, it is an example of what can be done in our prison system to rehabilitate inmates and give them a chance at productive lives once they are released.
And how we first discovered this program…
A mutual friend, Peggy Vance, who worked with us on this project, knew of their work and introduced us to the founder, Gloria Gilbert Stoga.
Gloria Gilbert Stoga is…
An amazing person. She is both kindhearted and tough — two traits that serve her very well in the prison system. Gloria believes to her core in second chances, but she runs a tough and challenging program in prison. She is actually perfect for the job and is having a real impact not only at the Fishkill Correctional Facility but in five others as well (an additional four in NY and one in NJ).
My favorite scene from Prison Dogs…
There are so many — but I would have to say I love the scene where the selected group of inmates are receiving and literally picking up their eight-week old puppies in their arms. It is for them a moment of rebirth and the beginning of an odyssey that, if they succeed, will allow them to give back to society, in specific to veterans with PTSD. They don’t yet know the significant challenges that await — they only know the excitement and love of a puppy.
The biggest surprise…
What an enormous difference the dogs made in the lives of the veterans. When we first met the veterans we were taken aback by how much their lives had been impacted by PTSD and our first thought was skepticism about how much difference a dog could make. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The dogs were lifesavers.
And the most emotional moment…
When the dogs went home with the veterans. The inmates had worked and lived with these dogs for more than two years. They loved and cared for these dogs and in many ways, the dogs were all they had, and at graduation, they had to say goodbye, and that moment was very emotional for all involved.
Without a doubt, the most challenging part of filming was being in a prison. While the Department of Corrections was wonderful to work with, our access was limited. Filmmakers by nature want more access not less — so only seeing the inmates once every six weeks was challenging. We worked with the inmates to keep diaries of what transpired in the time we were away, but there was no way to capture the many important moments that happened in our absence.
One example of change we saw in a participating prisoner…
One of the inmates shared this realization with us: “Caring for Ellwood has highlighted more than anything else in my life that, I’m a father, and that I’m not there for my children. Incarceration, more than anything else, it has stripped you of all that you’re supposed to be. I know I can’t fix it, but one thing I do know is that I’m going to spend the rest of my life giving everything that I have in me. I owe it to my children. I owe it to my family.”
The prisoners’ reaction to Prison Dogs…
Several of the inmates have been released since completion of filming. They seem very happy with the film. Many of them have served long-term sentences. One commented to us that it takes getting used to something as trivial as being able to go freely to a refrigerator to get food. I think the film and the attention it focuses on the inmates is startling, but they seem to be enjoying it and taking great pride in their achievement. Teaching a dog nearly 100 commands, many of which are complex and challenging, is no easy feat.
We hope audiences walk away from this film with…
A belief in second chances for prison inmates and an understanding of the power of forgiveness and redemption.
Prison Dogs is now available on iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play and more: PrisonDogsFilm.com/watch. Follow Prison Dogs on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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