Prison closure will end inmate dog-training work

DWIGHT – Prison inmate Sorrell Blomley has an unusual source of strength helping her endure life in a 9-by-12-foot cell: golden retriever puppies she helps train for charity work.

The 26-year-old is one of a number of prisoners at Dwight Correctional Center taking part in the training program and lamenting that it will come to an end because the prison for women is one of two slated to close as Illinois grapples with an immense budget crisis. For Blomley, it means the end of a program she says has benefited her as much as it has the Alzheimer’s patients, disabled children and others who get visits from the specially trained animals.

“Before, I was very shy,” said Blomley, who is serving a 10-year sentence. “I was afraid to step out of my shell and didn’t have any people skills. Now I feel like I can work with people.”

Since 2001, inmates at Dwight have taken part in the program, which sends dogs to churches, retirement homes and most recently to help victims of superstorm Sandy.

Warden Sheryl Thompson says the program will have to end when the prison is closed, although no date has been set for the facility to shut.

Blomley told the Chicago Tribune working with the golden retrievers has helped her own development while in prison and given her “people skills.”

The Dog Apprentice Program was designed with that in mind, as a way to help both inmates and the charity groups the dogs serve.

For the past four years, Blomley has shared her cell with a succession of dogs. Her latest pup is named Phoebe.

She and other prisoners participating in the program – the only one of its kind in Illinois – teach the dogs to sit, stay, keep quiet and refuse food in social settings. They also help the dogs master comforting skills, such as resting their chins on a person’s knee or sprawling out in a kind of canine hug.

Lutheran Church Charities has placed comfort dogs at parishes, schools, retirement homes and other nonprofit organizations in six states.

Fifteen of the dogs were trained at Dwight.

“It will be a loss to us definitely,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the Addison-based charity, referring to the program’s upcoming closure.

Blomley said it’s also a loss that will be felt by inmates trying to cope with prison life.

“It’s definitely a place that’s prone to negativity, a lot of people not thinking of bettering themselves,” she said of the prison. “With the dog, it just takes people away from here. ... It definitely keeps me away from any trouble I’d be around.”

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