These Dogs Live In Prison With Us ― And It's Created Something Beautiful

"There is something special about sharing space with a living thing that doesn’t know your past ― a space where judgment is nonexistent."
Elliot, left, and Evan, two of the dogs living and being trained at the Washington Correctional Complex.
Courtesy of Chris Blackwell
Elliot, left, and Evan, two of the dogs living and being trained at the Washington Correctional Complex.

I rubbed the dog’s soft neck. He pushed his head into me as his silklike fur slid through my fingers. This was nothing new for Evan ― he gets pets and scratches all the time. But I hadn’t touched a dog in 19 years.

Petting Evan made me emotional. There is something special about sharing space with a living thing that doesn’t know your past ― a space where judgment is nonexistent. Being in prison for taking another person’s life, during a drug robbery in my early 20s, makes an experience like this exceptionally rare.

Evan and another dog, Elliot, are part of Brigadoon Service Dogs at the Washington Correctional Complex, where I’m living. The program partners incarcerated individuals with dogs so the dog can be trained to help children and adults with physical and/or developmental disabilities.

Currently, there are two main handlers for the two dogs in training at the prison, and a handful of other incarcerated individuals who support the handlers by walking, grooming and bathing the dogs. Devonte’ Crawford, 26, is one main handler, and Leland Russell Jr., 37, is one of the men who offers support. Devonte’ shares a cell with the dogs in the general population of the prison. Because of this, the dogs are a part of our daily lives. It’s common to see them lying about, playing in the yard and receiving enormous amounts of attention. Their human companions ― Devonte’, Leland and the rest of the guys ― get a lot of attention, too.

Devonte’ is serving a 30-year sentence for assault and robbery that he committed shortly after turning 21. Leland is serving a 63-year sentence for two counts of murder that he committed shortly after he turned 29. While both of these men are in prison for very serious crimes, they are also the reason Evan and Elliot are with us. These prisoners are now devoting their lives to giving back to their communities, inside and outside, by training these dogs.

“At the time of my crime, I was under the influence of drugs,” Devonte’ told me. “I assaulted and robbed a man with my friends. Since I was the one who wielded the weapon, I was labelled ‘the ringleader.’ I believe because I was the only person of colour involved, I was given more time than all three of my codefendants combined.”

Devonte’ has had a deep-seated love for animals and nature for as long as he can remember. Before he was incarcerated, he volunteered at the Kitsap County Humane Society.

“[The] majority of my time there was spent with the larger, and considered to be unruly, dogs,” he told me. “I loved the outcasts. These dogs were deemed ‘aggressive,’ but I knew they were merely misunderstood. I’ve felt the exact same way my whole life. Not once did I ever experience that aggressiveness from the dogs. I knew they just wanted to be loved, and that’s what I shared with them.”

“When I first entered prison, I became a primary dog handler at Washington State Penitentiary (Walla Walla),” Devonte’ continued. “The dogs there were brought in from the Humane Society. They were in need of rehabilitation and basic training skills. Many of the dogs suffered great traumas. When I transferred to WCC, I came across Brigadoon, a program I had never heard of before, and it was a little intimidating because the program produced elite service dogs, not just pets that could shake and sit on command.”

“Loving a challenge, paired with a chance to participate in something I loved doing ― it was a no-brainer,” he said. “I fully dove into supporting the program. Waking up, seeing Evan’s face and bright, loving eyes always puts a smile on my face and prepares me for the day.”

Devonte' Crawford with Elliot and Evan.
Courtesy of Chris Blackwell
Devonte' Crawford with Elliot and Evan.

Leland told me he wanted to be involved in the dog program because he knew it was a great opportunity to give back to the community. He told me the dogs they train are extremely smart, and most importantly, they could save someone’s life.

“I’ve been a part of the program for two and a half years,” Leland said. “I’ve worked with six dogs. Biscuit was my favourite. He went to a teenager with autism. I often still think about him. He was a huge part of me regaining my confidence and self-worth. But it really meant a lot to know that he would go to a child who really needed him. This path I’m on has been a true blessing.”

The training program doesn’t just develop the dogs’ abilities ― it brings out and encourages important parts of the trainers, too.

“Being a part of the program was completely different than anything I had done before,” Devonte’ said. “The program has taught me methods of training for any dog/other animals, patience on another level, how to utilise my creativity and imagination to produce the results that I want, and strengthened my social skills and coping abilities in stressful situations, while forcing me to be more structured and disciplined. It has given me a sense of being involved with society, because the dogs I train will go to someone in need, while helping to bring balance, purpose and happiness to such a negative environment.”

Devonte’ told me that Evan, who he’s currently training, is his “spoiled little baby who gets the best possible treatment a dog can get.” He added: “It feels incredible to have a friend who will lay beside me and listen to everything I have to say, and most importantly, I don’t have to worry about being judged. He loves me for me, all my flaws included. For a while I had forgotten how to be vulnerable and affectionate, but he pulled that right out of me. Evan constantly reminds me to never forget who I truly am.”

“Whoever Evan goes to, once he leaves this prison, will be a very lucky person to have such an incredible companion,” Devonte’ said. “And seeing the dogs also tends to soften the guards and other staff. The way these people communicate with me since I’ve been in the program feels humanising. The thing that sticks out the most for me is my increasing ability to love again, and to do so to the fullest of my ability.”

Leland told me that “training these dogs has helped me to stay focused on serving a greater purpose than myself.” He also noted that “the program keeps me from being involved in prison drama, while allowing me to use my time productively towards a cause that I really believe in.”

“I never thought I would see a dog again in my life after I received my prison sentence ― eight years later, I’m training service dogs,” he said. “Being around dogs is incredibly therapeutic for me and so many other men inside the prison. I love seeing how excited the other guys get when the dogs are around. When the dogs are around, you just see a shift in the environment. Plus, I’m learning tons of new skills I never had before. I really like that feeling of growth and development.”

He also spoke of the humility the program has given him. “I can be myself,” he said. “The dogs love me for who I am ― I don’t have to fake being some mean angry person to impress others, and often that’s how prison functions. I don’t want to be violent, or even act like I am. The harm I’ve caused my community weighs heavily on me. Today, my only goal is to give back as much as possible to a world I’ve taken so much from. Plus, how can the innocence of a puppy not humble you?”

Devonte’ plans to keep training dogs after he is released. “I don’t know if it will necessarily be a full-time gig of mine,” he said, “but it will for sure be a part-time thing. Who knows, though ― if I can make enough money to survive doing it, I’d love to devote my life to training service dogs.”

But Leland will be in his 90s when he’s released, which, he said, “is a little old to do anything. But I would love to have a dog, since I’ll have nobody else.”

Leland Russell Jr. with two dogs in the training program at WCC.
Courtesy of Chris Blackwell
Leland Russell Jr. with two dogs in the training program at WCC.

I can’t imagine spending so much time with such loving creatures knowing I’d have to say goodbye, but Devonte’ and Leland don’t see it that way.

“People always mention how hard it must be when it’s time for the dogs to move on, and how there is no way they could handle that,” Devonte’ told me. “What keeps me going is, I know the dog is going to someone who really needs their help. What I do is for something bigger than myself. I also know there are more dogs that need my help. This gives me motivation to move forward.”

“Regardless, I still get emotional on departing day,” he said. “Losing a best friend over and over isn’t a pleasant feeling. Luckily more dogs come in when the others are taken out, and just like that, I have a new best friend to focus on.”

“It is kind of bittersweet,” Leland said, “because you’ve created a bond that words cannot fully describe, but then you also know that by letting the dog go, you’re helping someone who really needs it. It’s extremely emotional to watch them go, but I remind myself of the unmatched joy they bring me and the other men. That’s the gift they give, and then they must go and fulfil their path of helping someone who really needs them to get through their daily life.”

“These dogs leave an everlasting paw print on your heart, and memories that will last a lifetime,” he said. “But that’s what they become: memories.”

The Brigadoon program at WCC isn’t a one-off; there are dozens of these programs in prisons across the U.S. For the individuals lucky enough to be a part of them, these programs offer a chance to give back to the communities they previously harmed ― something that many of the incarcerated individuals find important as they continue on a path of growth and development. The programs are investments in the rehabilitation taking place in the prisons that host them, and a benefit to the individuals who receive the dogs, as well as to the dogs themselves.

“We feel so lucky to have Eula,” one recipient of a prison-rehabbed dog told me over email. “She is the sweetest, most gentle dog. And it was easy to add her to our family because she was so well-trained through the prison program. That program saved her life ― she was a stray living on the streets before she was placed there. By the time she came to us she was fully house-trained, knew lots of commands, and was friendly with...everyone! She is such a special part of our family and we are grateful to the person who trained her.”

Prison is hard for most people, and has only gotten harder since COVID-19 hit the world. The majority of positive programs and visits with loved ones have been stripped down to the bare minimum. Having a couple of beautiful Labradors running around the place, both of them full of personality, offers a joy that’s needed to sustain some form of happiness during these tough times.

The other day, while walking back from my prison job, I noticed Evan and Elliot rolling around in the grass, play-fighting. They were having an amazing time enjoying each other’s company, and they were oblivious to the prisoners looking on, but we were extremely aware of them. It was a sight of normalcy, something many of us rarely get to experience inside these walls. I soaked it in as my mind struggled to compute how watching something so simple could feel so good. Seeing these incredible creatures just living their lives was a gift, one for which so many of us in here are grateful.

Christopher Blackwell, 41, is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington state. He co-founded Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and strives to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Insider and many more outlets. You can follow him and get in touch on Twitter at @ChrisWBlackwell.