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Arkansas inmates find purpose with dog companions: 'A reminder I'm capable of loving again'

Tracy Owen was sentenced to 78 years in prison. Now, she's a professional dog trainer for the Paws in Prison program at the McPherson Unit where she spent 16 years.

NEWPORT, Arkansas — A dog isn’t always man’s best friend, especially for more than a dozen women in an Arkansas prison. Inmates are living with troubled dogs and training them to become pets in more than half a dozen state prisons.

In a life filled with twists and turns, how you start doesn’t always determine where you finish. 

“I got in trouble and I was sentenced to 78 years,” Tracy Owen said. 

The former inmate is now a professional dog trainer, in the same prison where she spent 16 and a half years behind bars. Owen continues, “It’s something that I can’t really put into words. It’s very special.”

In June, our cameras were allowed inside the McPherson Unit where we met Amy Williams. “I’ve grown up here. You know I came to prison when I was just 16 so I had a lot of obstacles just in that,” Williams explains.

But for just a moment, those obstacles don’t exist. She and 13 other inmates are matched with the dogs that would potentially change their life, or at least their time in prison. 

It’s been a long journey for these dogs. While it may seem like the arrival to the McPherson Unit would be the end of the road for both the dog and the inmate, it just might be their first step toward freedom.

Williams explains, “It’s kind of emotional because like I said it’s been 18 years since I’ve been around an animal and so it almost is like a reminder that I’m capable of loving again. It’s like a breath of fresh air. I have something that I can love and just love on. It’s… just… very very therapeutic.”

Owen remembers exactly what it was like to walk in these ladies’ shoes, saying, “It is indescribable.” Eleven years into her sentence, Owen got her first taste of what her future had in store. 

"The warden had called 8 of us into visitation. I’ll never forget it.” Owen would become part of the Department of Correction’s Paws in Prison Program, where dogs from the humane society are assigned to two inmate trainers who receive weekly instruction from professional dog trainers. 

The dogs spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week with the inmates inside their cells. Owen said, “You know, we fall in love with all of them. We want them all.”

Since its inception in 2011, the program has trained and adopted more than 1,700 dogs into permanent homes. The expansion into the McPherson Unit makes the program active in eight state prisons, with 43 dogs currently enrolled. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have taken its toll on so many, for Williams, the program expansion couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“I think the timing is perfect. You think about the year we just came through with COVID and you know we’ve been separated from our families and we haven’t been able to have contact with them like we did. So this was just like the light at the end of the tunnel that things are getting back to normal and there is better days ahead,” Williams said.

In order for the inmates to qualify for the program, their records must be clear of any behavioral infractions for a year prior to applying, and they must maintain a good behavioral record to stay in the program. 

If you're interested in adopting one of the graduates from the program – partner rescues and shelters handle all the adoptions. Click here to learn how to submit an adoption application.

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