Leobardo Campos could be a hardened prisoner having served 16 years of a 50-years-to-life sentence for murder, but a playful Jack Russell terrier is helping with his rehabilitation at Valley State Prison.
Campos – with fellow inmate Jered Pillsbury – is part of a dog-training program, a first at the Level 2 men’s facility southeast of Chowchilla.
The two inmates passed interviews and have exhibited good behavior to be chosen as part of a 10-person team assigned to train dogs in prison.
“I saw something on PBS about training dogs in Florida,” said Campos, a 37-year-old immigrant from Cuernavaca, Mexico. “I was anxious; I couldn’t believe I was chosen.”
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In his prison-assigned blue jeans and matching short-sleeve pullover, Campos shook hands with prison warden Ray Fisher Jr. in a sort of graduation for both man and dog in the prison’s gym on Oct. 28.
He agrees with the program’s goal of helping dogs to become more adoptable through the Madera County Animal Shelter, but it also provides inmates with emotional attachment and added responsibility, both key factors in inmate rehabilitation.
“I was 21, immature, without hope, planning suicide,” he said. “I was put in jail when my son was 3 years old.
“I was shot five times. I shot back, and he bled out. I carry that with me every day to honor his name.”
Campos, nearly in tears, said being with the Jack Russell named Rosie was like caring for a child.
“The upbringing is like a toddler. You’re always saying stuff like ‘Don’t pick that up!’ It’s just like raising a child.”
It took Campos nearly a month before he told his mother and family, who live in Stockton, that he was a part of a dog-training program.
“It changed my life,” he said. “Before, I would just come home from work at the optical and just take a shower. Now I have a responsibility.”
Lt. Tony Martínez and Steve Gil, a prison officer, first thought of the program seven years ago, inspired by similar programs in other prisons. When Fisher arrived in December, he agreed and granted the officers permission to launch in July.
“There was 200 (candidates) down to 50 then 10,” Martínez said of the interview process.
“And we went through several trainers, too. We were looking for someone who trains with positive reinforcement. We wanted someone who was really passionate about how animals should be handled.”
They found Ali Imel, owner and proprietor of Yosemite Bark and Pet Services in Coarsegold, who for 10 weeks visited the prison three, sometimes four, times a week to share her knowledge with the inmates on how to train a dog. Imel, also a veterinarian, has trained animals for more than 15 years.
The next program begins on Monday, this time with 12 dogs from the Madera County shelter. Eventually, Martínez wants inmates to train dogs to become service animals.
Inmates cannot have any offenses in two years and they must exhibit sincerity and positive reinforcement to animals.
Nearly half of the dogs trained so far have been adopted by employees at the prison.
In a Level 2 prison facility, inmates sleep in a sort of dormitory fashion, shared with other inmates. The dogs remained with the prisoners for the 10 weeks, day and night, in a dog carrier.
Rosie was trained and cared for by Campos and Pillsbury.
“And they’ve done a terrific job in a relatively short amount of time,” Martínez said.
“I never thought in my 20-some years (experience) that I would see a dog inside a prison not sniffing out drugs,” Fisher said.