ECI inmates to train companion dogs for veterans

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PRINCESS ANNE - Dog days at Maryland prisons start in August, when inmates train select breeds of canines as suitable service companions for wounded or disabled veterans.

The Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover is among three prisons in the state participating in America's VetDogs Veteran's K-9 Corps, which is working to pair at least 200 vets in 41 states with canine companions, said Sheila O'Brien, a member of America's VetDogs.

In all, there are currently close to 46,000 military veterans returning home from Afganistan and Iraq alone with post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries, she said.

"I am here for over 46,000 good reasons," O'Brien said.

"The military population is changing the demographic of the disabled population. The average age is 22 for enlisted (personnel), and some of them will live between 50 and 60 years with a severe disability."

O'Brien joined state and local prison officials and military veterans from near and far on Tuesday at an ECI ceremony that unveiled the low-cost program that is a first for the state animal training program involving veterans at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman at DPSCS, chose the backdrop of a brick and marble Veterans Memorial erected at the ECI complex by inmates to announce the program that also will involve inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

"ECI is on the cusp of becoming involved in the greatest justice project that pays back to society and military veterans in a great way," Vernarelli told the audience. "It is a labor of love. It is smart justice and restorative justice. Inmates are taking responsibility for living things around them."

An estimated 20 ECI inmates will be selected to train an equal number of dogs that will be taught to pull wheelchairs, turn on and off light switches and even alert their owners to low blood-sugar readings.

Inmates will receive a dog that is about six weeks old for training. Dogs also will board in cells with their inmate-trainers.

James Curran, an 18-year disabled National Guard veteran from Boston, flew to the Eastern Shore on Tuesday with his companion dog, Quincy. "He is a fine product from a prison in Georgia," Curran told the audience. "The program will help other veterans as Quincy helped me."

Kathleen Green, warden at ECI, called the pairing of inmates with dogs for disabled military veterans a "win-win situation."

"It has a ripple effect," she said. "It is a unified and team effort with a positive outcome."

Local veterans in attendance included Irvin Ford and Phil Riggin, respectively, commanders at American Legions in Princess Anne and Crisfield, said they intended to contribute to the program that operates on donations.

"The amount of dignity and self respect the dogs give (veterans) gives vets a greater sense of independence," Riggin said.