A Dawg's Life
I was chained like a dog, staring out of a steel-meshed window at the exquisite New Mexico landscape. My heart lamented it’s beatings inside of my ribbed cage and I wondered, “How did I end up like this?” I took a break from my tortuous thoughts and stole a glance of the broken men discarded with me. They were silent and perfectly bound in their own thoughts while our prison transport wiggled through Truth or Consequences. “Where did things go wrong?”
I was in first grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary School when I learned to hate—and fight back. I didn’t speak English so, instead of making friends like I wanted to, I drew a mob of angry children. They chased me all the way home calling me a wetback while throwing rocks at me, demanding that I return to Mexico. Somehow, my reasoning got twisted; instead of hating the actions of these errant children, I turned that hate onto my own brown skin and its content. Unwittingly, I started suffocating my underdeveloped self-esteem by loathing with resentment.
My internship in the netherworld called prison was brutal. Besides the other mangy rejects that were collared and tagged in the cages next to me, there was staff. In their ranks lurked sadist and angels. The errant sadist eagerly shared their dose of pain, but they were small in numbers compared to the angels that actually cared; people like Detention Officer Patrick Howie and Parole Officer Renee Waskiewicz.
It’s harsh to judge people by the color of their skin or the color of their uniform. I’m learning to do it less because of experiences with people like Howie, a jailer in the old Doña Ana County Jail. He sat outside of my observation cell and held my hands while I dribbled pitiful tears after I killed a man. Years later when I was creating a scene in the cell block, a single look from Howie’s compassionate eyes was all it took to ease me out of my tantrum.
Recently, I met with Renee at the Adult Probation and Parole Office. She’s a peaceful Parole Officer that always saw the best in me while doing her job, and I respect her. She’s also the founder of a program called PAWS, an acronym for Prisoners and Animals Working toward Success, at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.
New Mexico Correctional Facility partnered with Animal Services Center of Mesilla Valley to improve the lives of our community’s rejects. Renee and Doug Baker, a professional dog trainer, volunteer their time and work to foster healthy alternatives which counter the detrimental havoc wrought on the men and dogs segregated from our society. They provide prisoners with the opportunity to save a dog’s life and contribute in a meaningful way. During the harshest of emotional existence, these men commit to training and tending to dogs that will eventually be taken from them.
The men allowed to participate in the PAWS program must have at least six months of clear conduct and a record void of crimes which involve children, animals or sexual offenses. They work in teams and meet with Doug once a week for classes that emphasize training without yelling, scolding or physical reprimands. They work to be assertive, calm and consistent while providing the positive reinforcement needed to curtail unwanted behavior. The imprisoned trainers get to keep the dogs alongside of them 24 hours a day, which reduces some of the psychological damage attached to the astronomical levels of isolation found in prisons.
The Department of Corrections does not provide funding for this inspirational program. PAWS is not a formal non-profit organization either so it’s fueled mostly by the love and support of organizations and people that populate our state, county and surrounding area. Renee’s office is stocked up with supplies like poop bags, leashes, collars, grooming supplies and toys for the dogs. Money cannot be accepted by PAWS which makes it difficult to accommodate the shifting stream of supplies used most often; like training treats as well as tick and flea prevention products. I asked Renee what was the biggest need they have is and without hesitation, she indicated that they need people willing to adopt these pups. Her heart aches because she is familiar with people whose work involves killing dogs. Ten thousand dogs are slated to die this year in Doña Ana County, that’s an average of twenty seven dogs a day!
Renee mentioned that in the beginning, Correctional Officers were apprehensive and concerned about additional difficulties the program would cause. After several months of instituting the PAWS program, the Officers noted that a calmer, peaceful atmosphere accompanied the cell blocks where the PAWS participants were housed. There’s an emotional cost imposed on the people caring for chaotic men in cages and the ones that must sacrifice dogs to a god-less euthanasia. So it was a pleasure for Renee to hear positive feedback coming from officers; they preferred to work in cell blocks where the PAWS program is in effect.
Being caged and nourished with emotional isolation obviously inhibits our constructive development. If we want “A Future to Believe In”, we need to think critically about the consequences relating to stripping people of hope and meaning while they’re doomed to a cage. Personally, I had to deal with a slew of unexpected issues after my release. A beautiful dog named Kota adopted me and helped me transition to life out here. He’d been trained well and for the first time ever, I was able to keep him with me wherever I went.
Some of the men I met in prison are lifers, they’ll never go home. It’s not my duty to judge them or forgive them. I care about them because I’ve worn their chains and felt their pain. I’d been stripped of meaning and shelved for profit. These men were once children, filled with hope, charm and wonder. Somehow, they’d been lovingly encouraged to adopt self-destructive behavior. That’s how babies and puppies are written off early in life by the thousands so that prisons and kennels are overflowing with rejects like me.
I too was written off and delivered to society’s wasteland. I was a funnel, fashioned to siphon out tax payer’s money that often times, does more harm than good. In spite of more than 18 years soaking up prison’s dementia, I was able to recover the inner child I locked away in a battered self-esteem cage. I was fortunate to have a daughter whose naive faith and love for me never wavered. I’m closer to spiritual freedom now, but I still get depressed when I think of the caged brood I left behind, my brothers in chains. I strive to understand why despite my travesties, I was the lucky dawg able to escape and find my way back home.
For more information about the PAWS program at www.corrections.state.nm.us and clicking on the PAWS icon or on our Facebook page Southern New Mexico PAWS. If you are interested in adopting please fill out the online application or visit us at the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley on Bataan Memorial.