As a former inmate of Allendale Correctional Institution (ACI), I was afforded the opportunity to participate in the Meowmate/Muttmate Animal Fostering Program. I feel it is important for me to at least attempt to describe the impact this life changing program had on me and the hundreds of other men I grew to know as we helped each other nurture and train the animals lucky enough to be sent to Allendale Prison.
I was incarcerated for nearly twenty-five years. During this time I was housed in some of the most violent institutions in the state, where the expression of any amount of human emotion is a dangerous liability. Compassion, empathy, sympathy; all of these sentiments inside of a typical prison environment would cause one to be labeled as weak, thereby drawing the attention of those who prey on the weak. Prisons tend to harden people and, after nearly twenty years of incarceration, I was about as hardened and antisocial as one can become.
This began to change with my participation in the programs offered at ACI, but only in a superficial manner. My behavior had changed, but who I really was and what I thought of myself was the same. Then, thanks to the innovative partnership between the Animal Advocates of Barnwell, SC, Friends 4 Life Center and the administration of ACI, I was given the chance to foster a dog.
The first dog I was assigned to foster was of a breed that I had always heard negative things about and, to top it off, was labeled “unadoptable.” As I grew to know and love my first foster dog, the experience forced me to question why I believed certain things about animals and people before I had ever even met them. My interaction with my dog also caused me to look inside myself and realize that, just as I had to adjust my countenance in order to receive a positive response from my foster animal, I needed to likewise make a change in the way I interacted with other people in my environment.
Animals know who you really are. I remember being told once that a dog is the best judge of character you will ever find, and I believe it. You have to be yourself when you are interacting with a dog and, after years of incarceration, many of us lose touch with our true self. We project a type of poisonous masculinity, devoid of any emotion and, after a time, begin to believe that person is who we truly are.
In order to get a positive response from a dog, you must soften your personality and assure the animal that you are someone they can feel safe with. Making those around you feel safe is also not something one spends his time developing while incarcerated. As a matter of fact, it is generally considered better if people don’t feel safe around you! In a short amount of time every man that fosters an animal begins to experience this shift within himself. The change is so pronounced that even those around him and the family and friends he sees on visit notice it.
Prison encourages a person to care only about oneself. Fostering an animal forces a person to put his wants and needs aside and instead make the needs of his foster animal the priority in his life. I have personally witnessed permanent change in several hundred men as they fostered, trained, and loved the animals entrusted to their care. I have seen men clinically depressed no longer have to take the medication they once relied on just to make it through the day. I have also seen family’s brought back together through the connection experienced when a child, estranged from his father due to incarceration, adopts the animal his father trained and socialized in the hope that that animal could share some of the love he has for his loved ones but separation prevents him from expressing.
I made parole on the first day of spring in 2019. That is also the day that my first foster dog, Savannah, the one that was labeled unadoptable, made parole. She lays at my feet as I type this, and goes most everywhere I go. She is my constant reminder of the necessity of second chances, the importance of an open mind, and the power that empathy has to change not only your own world, but the world of every person you interact with in your life.
Thank you Animal Advocates for the many lives you have saved, four legged and two.
Geoffrey Payne - 10/10/19