Pups waiting to get INTO prison

The dog-training program at Lexington prison is at risk because of budget cuts in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, despite being featured in the popular film “Dogs of Lexington,” produced by OCCC students.

The documentary focuses on the dogs and their inmate trainers at the prison about 20 miles south of Norman. It was released in 2013 after being produced by faculty and students in college’s Film and Video Production program. The animals typically were rescue dogs deemed suitable for pets or service animals after being taught basic obedience skills while being cared by inmates at the prison.

The program was labeled Friends for Folks and existed due to the generosity of outside donors who paid for dog food and other supplies, according to the film.

Lee Fairchild, Friends for Folks coordinator at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, said he can no longer spare the time to coach the inmates in training the dogs. Fairchild works as a case manager at the prison.

“With the shortage of staff and my caseload being doubled, I am not able to do as much with it as I used to,” Fairchild said. “I am doing my best to keep it open.”

Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the dog-training program is still in place.

“I don’t know where that information came from,” Watkins said. “I understand Lee’s frustration.”

She pointed to the state revenue shortfall as a factor in the decision-making process.

“I mean there is a $900 million budget downfall going on, but the program is still being utilized.

“Even though no one is overseeing it, the prisoners are still working with the dogs.”

Watkins said no new dogs are being taken into the program.

Lisa Billy, Oklahoma State Representative confirmed, “there’s a long waiting of dogs trying to get into that prison, but because of budget cuts they cannot take them in.”

Since “Dogs of Lexington” was filmed, the program has taken off all over the country, according the Dogs of Lexington website. It has spread into other parts of the country and the world, adopting names such as Paws in Prison, Paws Forward, and Paws for People.

Dr. John Otto, Norman veterinarian who works with the Friends for Folks prison therapy program, touted the program’s benefits in teaching patience and other skills to the incarcerated dog trainers that help the men function in society after leaving prison.

Otto is the author of “Marvin’s Shining,” a true story of a man, a dog, and the Lexington prison dog therapy program.

“Because of budget cuts, the program has become more of a kennel,” Otto said sadly.

He said he believes Fairchild lacks the manpower he needs to make the program as successful as it could and should be. Otto is the grandson of a former acting director of the FBI. He believes in the power of the dog training program to save people as well as animals.

“Rehabilitation is indeed possible,” Otto said.

OCCC Professor Greg Mellott served as producer and director for the film and expressed his regret that the program, which seemed so successful, would fall victim to budget cuts.

“We need to argue changing the prison system,” Mellott said. He is an award-winning director, writer, filmmaker and instructor.

Sometimes one person can make a change in the world, Mellott said, but usually it takes a team. Mellott is co-founder of OCCC’s Film and Video Production program.

His students filmed the movie, often creeping along the ground with their cameras to get a dog’s-eye perspective. Mellott said he was able to offer the students a small amount of pay because of a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.

“This particular film is based on a pilot test program (at the Lexington prison) created by Sister Pauline Quinn, the Dominican nun who founded the first prison-dog program in Washington state,” Mellott said. “It’s the idea of being other-centered.”

It was Quinn’s vision to place dogs in the hands of qualified prisoners, giving the dogs a second chance to be adopted and placed back into society. After the film was released, other prisons decided to buy into the concept.

“The program has raised over $385,000 for a new kennel and classroom facility to be built at the Mabel Bassett Women’s Prison in McCloud,” Mellott said.

The program is already underway at Mabel Bassett. They are set to break ground on a new facility after Dr. Derrill Cody donated $100,000. Mellott said, as a result of watching the “Dogs of Lexington” movie, Cody said he felt he needed to do something.

“The program has caught on in many states,” Mellott said. “Arkansas, Texas, California, West Virginia, Tennessee, to name a few, have started programs since 2012 in their state prisons. It has even spread into the UK as of 2015.”

OCCC film and video students have since completed a second movie on the dog-training program at Mabel Bassett. The movie, called “Bassett Tales,” has earned an Emmy award.

Mellott said his team of student filmmakers are working on a third movie, this one also about the dog therapy program at Mabel Bassett.

It would unfortunate to know the program that inspired the first film had been abandoned in the face of Oklahoma’s state budget crisis.

To view the “Dogs of Lexington” documentary, go to YouTube. The film lasts about 45 minutes.

For more information about the Film and Video Production program at OCCC, contact Mellott at gmellott@occc.edu.

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