Patriot PAWS teamed up with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2008. Their prison program matches inmates with dogs and helps to keep training costs down.
Prisoners said being a part of the program also has a positive impact on their lives.
“I had just turned 21 when I was incarcerated,” said Rachel Phillips who was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1994.
“I have a first degree murder charge and a forgery charge,” she added.
When she walked into the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Phillips had no confidence left.
“For a long time I thought its part of the punishment and I deserve it. I told myself that for so long,” Phillips said.
20 years later Tara Luitjen began a twenty year sentence for a drug possession charge.
“I was very greedy, immature really. I'm 30 years old and I am just now learning how to be an adult,” Luitjen said.
Both women spent some very long nights inside the cold, dark walls in the Christina Melton Crain unit.
“Being in this environment, sometimes we see things and deal with things that are really hard,” said Phillips.
In the midst of all their pain, they found a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I actually heard about it through a friend when I first got into prison,” Luitjen said.
Tara and Rachel learned Patriot PAWS, a nonprofit that trains service dogs for disabled veterans, had a program inside the prison.
“This program literally almost saved my life because I was at a point where I was just tired,” Phillips said.
Now, Phillips and Luitjen are each assigned a dog they care for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for several months at a time.
“The Patriot PAWS staff are very involved in what we do here and they know that we're offenders, but they treat us like we're human beings and that does a world of good for our confidence,” said Phillips.
“I'm learning so many more things than just learning how to train the dog, I'm learning about responsibility, I'm learning about integrity, initiative,” Luitjen said.
Each Patriot PAWS pup spends four to six months inside the prison walls training an average of six hours a day, but at some point the prisoners must say goodbye to the dogs they form such a strong bond with.
“Your first dog's really hard, but at the end of the day, we know that they're not our dogs and we know that they already belong to somebody that they just haven't found them yet,” Phillips said.
“It's not hard for me to let them go, because I know they're going to do good things and I know that the work that I put into them is going to save somebody's life,” said Luitjen.
Inmates in the program learn to work as a team, take direction from their superiors, and, maybe most importantly, that they can do something good for someone they have never even met.
“My favorite part about training the dogs is I feel like I have a purpose,” Luitjen said.
“Everything that I did in the past was for myself and I just want to do something for somebody else,” said Phillips.
It's the chance of a lifetime, and gives prisoners a way to turn their lives around.
“I believe that this has been the best experience of my life. I've gotten closer to my family, I have things that I can talk to them about, I'm learning I'll be able to leave here with something I can do as a profession,” said Luitjen.
For those who once took a life, it's an opportunity to make a difference in someone else's.
“I did deserve to be here, but now I know that I have that confidence and I have that perseverance and I have that stamina and, now, I want to go out there and I want to do something good,” Phillips said.
If you would like to volunteer, donate or learn more about Patriot PAWS visit their website at www.patriotpaws.org