- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

MANSFIELD, Ohio Late last year, both Eric Roberson and Star, a young female Labrador retriever, were sitting in their separate cells. He was 16 years away from his first parole board hearing for a 1992 murder conviction. She was one day away from euthanasia at the Ashland Humane Society.
Within 24 hours, they would both be sharing Roberson's cell, and both would be looking toward a better future.
While many prisons across the nation have introduced therapy and guide-dog training curriculums, Mansfield Correctional Institution has established a unique program of its own. The institution has begun bringing together castaway dogs from the pound and castaway men from the prison.
Called "death row dogs" by the inmates, the dogs are socialized and trained within the prison walls, then put up for adoption. Since the program began in the fall of 1998, not a single dog has been returned to the pound.
"These animals are underdogs too," explains program coordinator Carol Mull. "The men identify with them and have a great desire to help them."
A high school dropout and father of two young daughters, Roberson ended a night of drinking and drug abuse with two friends with the robbery of a bar and the murder of its owner. When his friends testified against him, Roberson plea-bargained his future and ended up in Mansfield. He does not remember much of the night that sealed his future.
Since he came to prison, he has overcome his addictions, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and been baptized in the Presbyterian Church. But what he says saved his heart came on the day he noticed a flyer looking for volunteers to enter a dog training program.
"We're in a harsh environment here," Roberson explains. "I always viewed this place as being filled with the rejects of society, so I couldn't imagine this happening."
But Deputy Warden Jesse Williams could.
Mr. Williams had introduced a pilot dog program into the Lorain Correctional Institution several years earlier. He found that the presence of dogs there provided training and socialization not just for the dogs, but for the prisoners.
When he transferred to Mansfield, he knew he wanted a dog program there as well.
Officials at the Ashland Humane Society jumped at the chance to participate.
"It benefits them, it benefits us, it benefits society," Miss Mull says. "They're so happy they don't have to euthanize these dogs."
Prisoners are screened before being allowed to participate. There are reviews of their criminal records no child or animal abusers, no sexual predators and of their conduct within the prison walls.
Once matched with a dog, a prisoner is fully responsible for its care: feeding, grooming, washing, housebreaking, training. Cell-mates act as helpers, but no more. Prison guard Dale Thompson conducts weekly group obedience-training sessions.
Everyone seems to like the dogs. It is difficult to find a staff member who does not have a desk drawer full of bones and biscuits.
"It gives the inmates a feeling of responsibility and the chance to give back to society," says Mr. Williams.
Roberson agrees. "I didn't think I had any compassion left in me," he says. "But when I received one of the first dogs in the program, a brindle boxer pup named Brin, I fell in love as soon as they laid her in my arms."
He carried the fragile puppy across the prison yard to his cell block.
"I was anxious, because I thought guys would think I was soft," he continues, "and I was afraid for her safety."
But when he got to his cell block, the men all gathered around. Roberson put the puppy on the ground, and she started to run and jump. Men laughed and reached out to touch her.
When the coldest and most hateful man on the block dropped to the floor and rolled around with the pup laughing, Roberson knew that everything was going to be OK
One year and five dogs later, he received Star. While many of the dogs in the program were abused, untrained and skittish, it was apparent that Star had once been somebody's pet. She was housebroken, unafraid of the strange noises of the prison, and knew the "sit" command. Over the next seven weeks, Roberson worked on her leash and obedience training. She was severely undernourished, so he made sure she returned to a healthy weight with food provided by the Humane Society.
And over the weeks, their bond grew stronger.
"No matter what you've done or what kind of day you've had, she's always there wagging her tail and giving kisses," Roberson says as he rubs Star on the head.
"She loves me no matter what problems I have."
Star and Roberson share their cell block with 180 other men and one other dog. Prisoners in the wood shop build the cages that fit in the inmate's 10-foot-by-10-foot cell.
At Christmas, some 600 inmates paid $2.50 apiece to have their picture taken with Star or one of the 15 other dogs on the grounds, wearing Santa caps and posing in front of painted holiday backdrops. The money raised went into a fund for Amish-made leather collars and leashes.
Guard Kathy Schlaeg volunteered to co-train Star, taking her home on weekends and introducing her to a very different environment children, cars, malls and the great outdoors.
She was so smitten with the dog that when it came time for Star to be adopted, Mrs. Schlaeg jumped at the chance herself.
She met Roberson in the prison office to take Star to her new life. Roberson knelt next to Star, and rubbed her all over.
"He was so gentle with her," Mrs. Schlaeg explains. "Just like she was his child."
"He told her, 'Now you be a good girl. You remember everything I taught you. You're going to a good home where people will love you.' "
Swelling with emotion, Roberson gave her one last hug, then rose and walked away.
"Now get her outta here," he said, choking back tears.
These days, Roberson seeks Mrs. Schlaeg out to ask how she and the dog are doing. Mrs. Schlaeg hopes to be able to bring Star back inside for a visit someday.
And after several weeks alone, Roberson is waiting for a new dog to love and train.
"What I did on the outside, it's something I have to accept to keep going in here," he says.
"But I've come to learn that life is so precious. I know that now."

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