BLAND, Va. - Six inmates stood at the edge of the prison yard, waiting like expectant fathers.
A white van pulled up to the gate of Bland Correctional Center. Karen Hough stepped out. "I'm so excited I could cry," she said.
Hough swung open the van doors and unloaded her cargo - four puppies, still sleepy-eyed from the two-hour drive from Roanoke. She handed Buddy, an 8-week-old golden retriever, to prison counselor Emma Eaton. After the dogs cleared security (even puppies are searched behind the collar for drugs at Bland), Eaton approached the group of inmates and handed a now-squirming puppy to John Bumgarner.
'Here's your baby'
"Here's your baby," Eaton said.
Bumgarner cradled the puppy in his tattooed arms. Buddy licked him on the mouth, not the least concerned that his new master was serving 51 years for multiple counts of burglary and grand larceny.
"Bless his little heart," Bumgarner said.
Thus began the Prison Pup Program. The program, the first of its kind in Virginia, matches carefully selected inmates with puppies that are later used as service dogs for people with disabilities, performing tasks such as opening doors and turning on light switches.
Buddy, Jazz, Sky and Magic arrived at Bland on a Tuesday afternoon in late June. They will spend the next year at the medium-security prison getting trained by Bumgarner and five other inmates before they are placed with professional trainers from the St. Francis of Assisi Service Dog Foundation in Roanoke.
Hough, who is training director at St. Francis, said puppies raised by inmates seem to learn faster. Not only do the inmates have lots of spare time, but they also crave the companionship a dog can provide behind bars.
"I'm supposed to be one of those hard, tough guys, but I'm telling you, I was touched by this," said Steve Martin, a barrel-chested man from Norfolk, Va., who is serving time for burglary and grand larceny.
"It's just like a little baby that's been given to you to care for," he said as he got acquainted with Magic, Buddy's sister. "You know you're going to have to wake up at night and take care of it."
The dogs will live with the inmates in their cells in the Honor Building, reserved for Bland's best-behaved inmates.
'A good sign'
Under the supervision of Hough, the inmates will house train - actually, cell train - the dogs and teach them basic commands such as come, sit, lie and stay. Hough, who has been planning the program for more than a year, met with the inmates some time ago and gave them dog training manuals.
The following week, she returned to Bland and asked if the inmates had looked at the books. They had all read it cover to cover. Twice. "This is a good sign," Hough said to herself.
A study in New York found that inmates who are given dogs showed improved self-esteem and better behavior behind bars, according to Marie Suthers-McCabe, a veterinary professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in human-animal interaction.
"It's really a good character-building exercise because it's an opportunity to give back to society," she said.
Suthers-McCabe plans to conduct a similar study at Bland, where James Dorton was so excited about having a dog for the first time in 18 years that he made a sign and hung it on his cell door. "Welcome Home Sky," it read.
Dorton, a 56-year-old convicted murderer from Wise County, was as excited as a schoolboy as he led the puppy into his tiny room.
"It's not much, but it's home," he told the dog. He then dropped his large frame to the floor and stroked Sky's back. "Isn't he beautiful?"
Larry Jarvis, the warden at Bland, hasn't heard any complaints from people upset about puppies being sent to prison. The prison screened more than a dozen inmates who applied to find the most ardent dog lovers while eliminating anyone with an animal cruelty conviction.
"They will probably get treated better in here than they will in some settings," Jarvis said of the dogs.
'It's about the dogs'
The way Dorton sees it, what he did 18 years ago is not important. "It's not about me, really," he said. "It's about the dogs and the program and the handicapped people. ... You feel like you're doing something productive instead of just wasting away."
The inmates know it will be hard to say goodbye to their pets next summer.
"We're going to get attached to them, we understand that," said Bumgarner, who grew up around dogs on a farm, before recording 19 convictions in Washington County. "But we know we've got to cut them loose, because they've got a better purpose to go to."
The program, funded by a grant from the Carilion Foundation, may have a new batch of puppies for the inmates next year, Hough said. Volunteer dog trainers are hard to find, she said, which is why the Saint Francis foundation approached the Department of Corrections last year with the prison pups proposal.
Meanwhile, Bumgarner will savor his every moment with Buddy.
"It puts you back in touch with what it means to be a human being," he said. Lying on his cell floor next to his new companion, Bumgarner watched as Buddy's tail thumped the tile floor.
"This is about as good as getting out on parole."