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One Kind of Freedom

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FOR NEARLY THREE YEARS AFTER a tumor robbed him of his eyesight, Darren Burton used a cane to navigate the streets of Morgantown, W.Va. Stabbing at obstacles in his path, he was an awkward, often frustrated figure. Finally, last March, he called Pilot Dogs Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, organization that trains and provides free guide dogs for the blind. Now he has Levi, a burly, yellow Labrador retriever, to stop him at intersections and lead him safely down sidewalks, up steps and around utility poles. “I can’t imagine doing without him,” says Burton, 31. “Yesterday the winding pin came out of my watch and fell off. I did not even notice it, but Levi did, and he picked it up, and had it in his mouth and started nudging me…. I can’t thank the person who raised him enough.”

Burton, a student of business management at the University of West Virginia, was stunned to learn recently that the person he has to thank for nurturing Levi through puppyhood is a convicted killer who murdered his own family. Clifford Chase, 41, is an inmate at London Correctional Institution, in London, Ohio. In 1974, after what prison officials say were years of violent abuse by his father, Chase snapped and shot him to death, then turned the gun on his mother and younger brother. Now he is in the 21st year of a 25-year prison term—and, improbably enough, a full-time guide-dog trainer. In fact, Chase is one of 49 prisoners at 13 Ohio penitentiaries who are raising pups for Pilot Dogs—housebreaking them, teaching them basic commands and helping them grow used to noise and strangers, both staples of prison life. After about a year in the Big House, the animals are sprung and sent for several months of advanced training by experts.

Like Robert Stroud, the lifer played by Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz, whose bond with a sparrow inspired him to write books on avian care, the convicts have reaped benefits from their relationships with the animals. “The men learn parenting skills, patience and responsibility,” says warden Melody Turner of London Correctional, a medium-and minimum-security facility outside Columbus. For the prisoners, the puppies fill a spiritual void. Says Chase: “I have something to love and someone who loves me.”

Traditionally, guide dogs have spent their first year or so in an animal-friendly foster home, often with 4-H Club members, to learn basic obedience and the rewards of human companionship. Since a guide dog almost never leaves a blind person’s side, the ideal foster trainer gives it round-the-clock attention. But it’s a daunting commitment. People have lives, after all—jobs, vacations, root canals.

But what if the animals had captive caretakers? “The dogs get 24-hour-a-day human contact at prison,” explains Jay Gray, executive director of Pilot Dogs, which trains about 170 guide dogs a year. He started the program three years ago, after the Ohio Reformatory for Women, near Marysville, contacted him seeking volunteer work for its inmates. The experiment worked, the idea caught on in the penal system, and Gray has since sent 90 Labradors, boxers and German shepherds through Ohio prisons. Each puppy has its own trainer, and only carefully screened, model prisoners qualify. Ordinarily, about 60 percent of Pilot’s dogs in foster homes graduate to become guide dogs; in Ohio the rate for prison-reared dogs is 80 percent. (On weekends, the animals sometimes go home with prison staffers, to such perils as cars, stores and children.)

At London Correctional, the guide-dog trainers live on a working farm, where 360 of the prison’s 2,400 convicts raise hogs and vegetables. Inmate Rich Combs, 38, now in the 15th year of a 15-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, says the dogs “help you keep your humanity.” With love, he notes, comes duty. “I take him to the bathroom before I go,” he says of Ringo, a 10-month-old Lab.

“It was something good, finally, after so many bad years,” Michael “Red” Robertson, 40, says of the program. Involved in a 1977 robbery attempt that ended with the shooting death of a Columbus tavern owner, he was given a life sentence as an accessory to murder and is up for parole next year. Joining Chase, Combs and Robertson in the guide-dog group are Robert Woods, 43, sentenced to life for murder 18 years ago, and Ricky Lee Robinson, 38, who has served more than five years of two 8-to-15-year sentences for a series of robberies. “I wasn’t going to do it, because I saw the work involved,” says Woods. “But I changed my mind when I saw that face right there.” He nods at Rebel, a beefy black Lab at his feet.

The five men and their dogs bunk in an 18-by-20-foot converted equipment room, where the decor is nothing if not consistent: a dog calendar, dog photos, bottles of dog shampoo and scattered, mangled, dog chew toys. Hanging from nails on the wall are the collars of seven dogs that have graduated. Beside his bed, Clifford Chase has tacked a newspaper clipping about how dramatically Levi, his first pupil, changed the life of Darren Burton. For his part, Burton recognizes the emotional price paid by Levi’s trainer: “I don’t know how anyone could raise a dog like that and then have to give him up.” In fact, if there’s a downside to the program, it’s the cycle of love and loss the convicts must relive. “I won’t want to watch him leave, because I know I’d start crying,” says Woods of Rebel. “And you don’t cry in a penitentiary.”