“It saved me,” Program allows adults in custody in Oregon to train working service dogs

PENDLETON, Ore. — Time blends together when you’ve been in prison for decades.

For Fred Pyke, he wonders what life will be like if and when he’s ever released.

He imagines the positive impact he could have on society, thanks to the unconditional love offered by dogs.

“I’m happy, who would’ve thought you could be happy in prison,” Pyke has been inside the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution for 23 years.

Happy hardly encompasses the 180 degree difference in Pyke’s life.

He said the dogs inside EOCI have changed his life for the better.

“I was adopted at a young age, I grew up in gang warfare,” Pyke said he used to believe he was a product of his environment; a life of crime because of his upbringing.

Years ago, he learned about a program allowing adults in custody to train service dogs while serving time. Pyke applied, hopeful that he would be admitted to the program.

“So the chance she took on me was, if you could define yourself in one word what would it be? And I said change; change all the negative, all negative thoughts into pro-communication, pro-social thoughts,” he said.

The person Pyke referred to is Joy St. Peter.

She founded the Joys of Living Assistance Dogs as a way to get service dogs to those in need, mainly veterans and first responders. Inmates who apply to the program go through an interview process before they’re chosen to be a part of JLAD.

JLAD was implemented into EOCI in 2016.

The dogs spend anywhere from 18 months to two years in training. They spend two weeks inside EOCI grounds with their inmate trainers and another two with socializers out in the community.

“To me it’s amazing, absolutely amazing. Starting seeing how it started changing their lives – seeing one of the big hardcore, sit down with a puppy and cry it just – I was amazing and thought oh my gosh we can offer even more to a whole new population,” Joy remembered the first inmates interact with dogs years ago.

During a graduation ceremony on Monday, a group of the JLAD trainers showed off what their loyal dogs are capable of and how they’ll assist their new owners. They showed off skills like responding to a PTSD episode, helping their handler check out at the store, balance and fetching their own leash.

“So they open doors, turn on lights, they wake them up from nightmares, lead them out of buildings if they start shutting down and can’t function in a crowd,” Joy explained, “I get the immense pleasure, or honor, of offering somebody a life of greater freedom and independence to a depth that I will never understand and to me that’s my motivation.”

It’s a love some of these men have never known; and it takes a discipline that requires all of their effort.

“I was high out of my mind, and chose to hang out with people I shouldn’t have and I shot, and ended up taking a life and I got 25 years when I was 18,” before JLAD, Patrick Morris said he was headed down a destructive path inside prison.

The ex-gang member has spent half of his life inside prison; a good chunk of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement.

He said JLAD has brought him the foreign joy of giving back.

“I’ve never done anything like this in my life and it’s sad that it took prison for me to really wake up but sometimes that’s what’s necessary. I saved a life instead of ruined a life. It’s very rewarding, like, wow, I really helped you. Are you serious?” he said.

It’s the general consensus among these men: the dogs have taught them invaluable life lessons.

“It’s taught me to think about others, it’s taught me empathy, sympathy, patience, it’s taught me how to love something other than myself,” Morris said.

“I learned to be accountable for my actions, how to show remorse in everything I do and only I can define who I am,” Pyke added.

It’s program that has benefits beyond providing a service dog to someone in-need.

“Twenty-five years of doing this, it’s one of the most beneficial programs that I’ve seen as far as change. It’s a benefit all the way around, it’s a benefit to the institution because it lowers the tensions, it’s a benefit to the recipients because they’re getting an animal that’s going to change their lives and it’s a benefit to the AIC’s because it actually changes their lives and gives them the opportunity to give back,” Captain Jeff Frazier said.

Some of these men aren’t certain what the future holds.

They don’t know if appeals will go through, or if their parole will be denied.

But they do know love, the kind that lifts a person up, compelling them to be a better person.

Patrick and Fred were asked what they wish they could tell their younger selves.

“Try to learn self love, figure out what that is because once you love yourself, you start figuring out everything because no one in this world is going to do it for you,” Morris said.

“Somebody does want you, whether you feel love from somebody, somebodies going to love you,” Pyke added.

The men hope the positivity of the program can shed a new light on adults in custody, allowing people to see them as rehabilitated and changed.

“All the years we locked down in a colorless place — we get to see color we get to see life, we get to breathe again.”

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