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Dog training program at Lowell Correctional Institution changes inmates’ lives

Nina Digiacomo said she was made to go to prison.

Fueled by anger without a shred of ambition, Digiacomo was prepared to keep her head down and get through her three-year sentence, until an unexpected furry friend entered the picture two years ago and started to soften her outlook on life.

Winnie, her service dog in training, was the pair of puppy dog eyes, wagging tail and undeniable personality she needed to rediscover her life’s purpose.

“I love myself; I have love for other people and it’s definitely life changing,” said Digiacomo, who has been an inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution since 2021 for a robbery without a deadly weapon charge.

Digiacomo and 19 others at the all-woman institution in Marion County spend their days training puppies to become obedient pets for families and veterans. Over time, inmates in this program start to see how their day-to-day work goes far beyond disciplining their furry cellmate.

Before becoming a dog trainer, Digiacomo worked as a barber at Lowell. Making the switch was one of the best decisions she has ever made, she said.

People from outside the walls of Lowell may see barbed wire and mistakes, but the ones on the inside have learned to see hope and second chances.

“Something happens when you train dogs,” said Brandi Collins, an inmate since 2018 sentenced to seven years for trafficking illegal drugs and possession of methamphetamine charges. “I realized every time you train a dog you are actually also training yourself.”

You grow alongside your dog until one day you look back and don’t see the person you once were, Collins said.

Women Offering Obedience and Friendship, better known as WOOF, is one of the many work programs offered at Lowell. In 2011, the Florida Department of Corrections partnered with Patriot Service Dogs to develop a program that would prepare both the dogs and their trainers to reenter society.

When the prison piloted the program, it was originally designed to just focus on dog training, but Julie Sanderson, president and cofounder of Patriot Service Dogs, knew there was potential for more.

“We realized pretty quickly that getting out [of prison] and just having dog training skills doesn’t give you much of a leg up once you get out,” Sanderson said.

It is important to her that the inmates leave Lowell with a toolbox of not just technical but personal skills. The program focuses on essential qualities like self-awareness, self-confidence and public speaking.

Within the program there are two branches: the service dogs and the rescue dogs.

The service dogs are brought in when they are 8 weeks old and live with their assigned trainer for two years, Sanderson said. The dogs are trained for issues such as mobility and post-traumatic stress disorder, typically by learning more complex commands and tricks.

After completing the training program, Sanderson matches each dog with a veteran based on the needs of the person and the personality of the dog.

The other half of the program brings in rescue dogs from a local shelter to live with the trainers for eight weeks where they learn basic leash training and obedience commands like sit and stay.

WOOF has successfully trained 240 dogs that have graduated from the program. Each one has found a forever home, Sanderson said.

Across the state, there are 17 inmate dog training programs in 15 different counties. Sanderson said WOOF operates a little differently than some of the others because her and her volunteers get to go into the inmates’ dorms. This allows them to troubleshoot and make training suggestions based on the dog and inmate’s environment, she said, whereas many other programs just meet with the trainers in a common space.

At the institution, the administration has a selection process in place to join the dog training program, Leslee Pippin, Lowell’s warden, said. Lowell Correctional Institution is composed of three units: the annex, the main unit and the work camp. The dog training program is offered at the work camp, Pippin said.

The inmates must be in minimum or community custody, meaning they have very little or no violence in their criminal history, have little time left on their sentence and pose a low risk to the community, she said. Once transferred to the work camp facility, inmates must submit a request demonstrating their interest in the dog training program and must have completed the institution’s Faith and Character program to be considered for selection.

“There’s a lot of inmates that want to get into the program because it is so beneficial,” Pippin said.

Out of the abundance of work options, this opportunity tends to receive the most praise, she said. Currently 20 inmates are enrolled in the program and 19 are on the waiting list.

The trainers have started getting the opportunity to meet the veterans who are receiving their dogs, said Pamela Lantry, an inmate since 2016 sentenced to nine years for a DUI manslaughter charge. Seeing the impact and the difference they are making in people’s lives has been a game changer.

“Training dogs is kind of a byproduct of what we do,” Lantry said. “It’s really the behavioral modification aspect of it that’s kind of the foundational structure.”

Gaining the real-world application for the life skills they are learning has been crucial, and Lantry said she could not have asked for a better opportunity to improve herself as a person.

It is very easy to enter the system and lose all strains of self-worth and let your bad actions define you, Collins said. This program has taught her and her peers that there is still good within them.

“My oldest daughter has not had a reason to be proud of me in a very long time,” she said. “I’m in prison and she brags about what I do and is not embarrassed to tell people what I do because this program has changed me, and she sees that.”

Before coming to prison, there were some days where Digiacomo didn’t care if she woke up or not. Now, she has goals and plans she is looking forward to with her release date, August 13, on the horizon.

Becoming a prison system success story has motivated her to look into becoming a certified addiction counselor and continue her dog training after finishing her time.

After leaving Lowell, she is ready to reintroduce herself to her friends and family as the new woman she became with just a little self-investment and puppy love to show her she wasn’t made for prison, prison made her.

Elena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.