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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Thousands of inmates in the Ohio prison system pay their debt to society by serving time for their crimes.

But a select few have a special job while they are behind bars.  These inmates feed, care for and train puppies, right in their cells and are with them 24/7.

The ultimate benefit is to give sight to the blind. But that’s not all.

The Franklin Medical Release Center is a state prison in the shadow of downtown Columbus, where razor wire separates the more than 400 inmates from society.

“I’m in here for failure to comply with the order of a police signal,” said inmate Brian Nelson. It is Nelson’s fourth time behind bars, and he currently is serving a three-year sentence.

His cell mate is Mike Shaffer, who is serving eight years for vehicular homicide.

They share their already tight quarters with two dogs.

“It’s kind of like having your kid,” said Nelson.

Brian cares for Leah, an 11-month-old standard poodle.

“We get them, they’re really just puppies, just playful puppies,” added Shaffer.

Shaffer is caring for a 5-month-old boxer, April.

The men say it’s a 24-hour-a-day commitment.  They live, play and eat together.

“They are the best buds in here,” said Shaffer.

As part of the prison’s pilot dog program, there’s plenty of time for personal attention and grooming the animals, but there’s the serious business of training in the prison yard.

The dogs are first taught basic commands like “sit” and “down.”

It can be a frustrating process, but it’s not just the dogs benefitting from the training.

The inmates admit it gives them a sense of responsibility and keeps them out of trouble.

“The inmate learns certain abilities that perhaps didn’t have before,” said Francisco Pineda, prison warden.

Pineda says it’s all part of the rehabilitative process to help inmates prepare for the time when they leave and become productive members of society.

“So I believe, altogether, everyone wins,” said Pineda.

Puppy Director Melissa Henwood of Pilot Dogs said the training is the backbone of her company.

Henwood says almost half of their future guide dogs are initially trained at the Franklin Medical Release Center and three other prisons.

One dog was a Labrador named Jewel, who was originally trained at Franklin for a year, and then went through six months of special guide dog training at the Pilot Dog facility.

Jewel is now ready to be placed with a visually impaired person. She will live with them around the clock for four weeks in the final phase of becoming a guide dog.

Jewel is trained to be the eyes of the visually impaired person in every situation, especially out on the street, which includes avoiding obstacles, stopping at a curb or indicating a change in the level of the pavement.

“I think it’s great what they do. I think it’s great they let us be a part of it,” said Shaffer.

Shaffer says he’s trained five dogs in the prison program, and one of them is now ready to be placed in someone’s home.

Although his sentence ends in a few months, he wants to continue training dogs when he gets out.

“These dogs will be integral to someone’s life,” he added.

Nelson says the poodle he trained before Leah is on his way to become a guide dog, too.

“My way to return the love is to make sure my dog does good, and it graduates and it becomes somebody’s eyes, helps somebody through the world,” he said.

Officials with Pilot Dogs say only about 50 percent of the dogs actually graduate to become guide dogs.

The organization says its 20 year partnership with the prison system has placed 65 dogs with visually impaired people. SOURCE

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