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    Fred and the Convict

    There’s a certain something in the air at USP Canaan this morning.

    By Dan Grote

    April 10, 2024
    • DeVonna Allison

      What a wonderful article...what a wonderful program! God bless all those involved in bringing these kinds of humanizing contact to fruition.

    It’s a quarter past nine on a Thursday morning, and save for the fact that the setting is a maximum-security federal penitentiary in the foothills of the Poconos, there’s really nothing too remarkable going on.

    There is, however, a certain something in the air. Several inmates are huddled together by the housing unit’s main entry, and a large and particularly menacing looking convict – let’s call him “Cee” – is pacing back and forth and having quite an animated conversation with himself. The conversation seems to concern a man named Fred, and it appears that Cee has been waiting on Fred for quite some time. And Cee does not look like the type of person that you would want to have waiting for you. For any reason. Ever.

    Cee is serving a life sentence, two of them actually, but after the first one, what’s the point in counting? His sentence is the result of a disagreement over a drug transaction three decades ago. Back in the nineties, Cee was one of the largest distributors of cocaine in Chicago. He did a brisk business, and despite rising quickly to the pinnacle of his chosen vocation, he still enjoyed doing the grunt work, settling his own disputes, and collecting his own debts. The dispute that landed him behind bars for the rest of his current life and all of the one that he will never live to see involved exactly seventy-five thousand dollars.

    What had happened was this: Cee delivered two kilos of prime Colombian marching powder, which the customer refused to pay for. Now, Cee, as most drug dealers of quantity tend to be, was, above all else, a reasonable and understanding businessman who understood that, at the end of the day, slow money is infinitely better than no money. So any even mildly believable excuse would have been accepted and some type of payment plan could have been worked out. But to flat-out refuse to pay for drugs that were fronted in good faith? That was blatant disrespect, which could not be tolerated. Criminals are people too, with feelings and reputations, and Cee had to make a statement, and make a statement he did, with two well-placed 9mm hollow-point slugs. Two mortal souls were taken in lieu of Cee’s 75k.

    Unfortunately for him, Cee wasn’t the only one who made a statement. A homeless man witnessed the double murder and told the police everything, and in short order Cee was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced.

    “Here they come, y’all!”

    A jolt of electricity saturates the air. Excitement may be a bit too strong a word, but there is certainly something palpable, an expectation of something beyond the sheer unmitigated boredom that is 95 percent of a prisoner’s day. Cee makes a beeline for the entrance, the door opens, and there stands Fred.

    Cee shouts his name, their eyes meet, and time seems to stand still. Fred is frozen in place; the default setting of his face appears to be somewhere between dopey and expectant. His eyes take in every one of the hundred or so inmates who have made him the undivided center of their attention and his tongue falls lazily from his mouth as he swaggers toward Cee. Fred is followed closely by the dozen or so correctional staff who tour the housing units on rounds every Thursday.

    Cee says that seeing Fred each week doesn’t just make him happy, it makes him feel human again.

    Fred and Cee are now inches from each other, and despite the abundance of correctional officers present, nobody makes any sort of move to get between them. Cee sinks into a crouch and morphs into a strangely touching caricature of the wide-eyed, wonder-filled little boy that he must have surely been before a lifetime of poor choices and bad decisions got ahold of him.

    “Hiya, Fred!” he yelps, punctuating his sentence by reaching out and giving Fred an energetic scratch behind the ear. Fred is shaking uncontrollably, his entire rump undulating like a fur-covered pendulum. A casual observer would be hard pressed to say who is wearing the bigger smile.

    Fred is, of course, a dog and, despite Cee being a fifty-something convicted murderer and Fred being a four- or five-year-old Pitbull mix, the two have much in common. They’re both locked up – Cee in United States Penitentiary Canaan, in Waymart, Pennsylvania, and Fred in a nearby animal shelter. Both of them have had rough lives; both have, to some extent, been abandoned by society. The difference is that Fred, with a little more socialization and training, has an excellent shot at getting another chance at life, and Cee could not be happier for him.

    Fred is one of three dogs enrolled in the Second Chance Dog Program, which the prison runs in partnership with the Dessin Animal Shelter in nearby Honesdale. The program is aimed at helping to give the shelter dogs the basic obedience and people skills that they will need to become adoptable. Most of this training takes place at the minimum-security prison camp adjacent to the penitentiary. There each dog is assigned an inmate handler who lives with it 24/7, and is responsible for providing the animal’s training as directed by a certified animal trainer. Inmate participants are actually able to complete a four-thousand-hour vocational training apprenticeship toward becoming certified animal trainers themselves.

    an inmate and a dog

    Photograph by Adam Goldberg. Used with permission.

    Numerous prison camps within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) now have some version of a dog-training program, and the recently enacted First Step Act, aimed at strengthening and broadening the scope of rehabilitative programs that the BOP can offer, even goes so far as encouraging facilities to establish such canine-based programs.

    The Second Chance Dog Program at Canaan is unique because it allows inmates at the penitentiary, maximum-security offenders whose programming options are generally limited, to participate. Penitentiary inmates lucky enough to be enrolled in the program meet once a week with the dogs and work on basic obedience commands and socialization.

    An inmate does not necessarily have to be enrolled in the dog program to benefit from it, though – the staff tries to bring at least one of the dogs with them on their rounds of the institution every Thursday. This in itself is helpful to the dogs, giving them practice in being around a crowded, noisy environment filled with new and interesting people, and it helps the inmates and staff because, let’s face it, just the mere presence of man’s best friend in such a harsh and uninviting environment is a ray of light in a world of darkness.

    So far, the program has been a success for everyone involved. A staff member at the prison, speaking under the condition that she remain anonymous, said that she never fails to be amazed at how just the sight of one of the dogs can turn even the most hardened of prisoners back into an innocent child – it’s a tug on the heartstrings to see a convicted murderer giggling and rolling around on the floor of a prison housing unit with a ball of fur-covered contentment. Perhaps Cee put it best when he said that seeing Fred each week doesn’t just make him happy, it makes him feel human again.

    Contributed By DanGrote Dan Grote

    Dan Grote is an incarcerated writer who has turned decades of poor choices and bad decisions into a mildly respectable pile of published poetry and prose.

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