Sister is on a mission to help prisoners help others

Prison dog program allows Marinette nun keep to her promise to God

OSHKOSH — The inmate’s long hair spilled well past the shoulders of his prison-green jumpsuit and, with his head deliberately bowed as if in prayer, mingled with

OSHKOSH — The inmate’s long hair spilled well past the shoulders of his prison-green jumpsuit and, with his head deliberately bowed as if in prayer, mingled with the jet black coat of an immaculately groomed standard poodle sitting obediently between his legs.

Sr. Pauline Quinn fixed her stare on the man incarcerated at the Oshkosh State Correctional Institute and clearly recalled the day, a half century earlier, she prayed for God’s help.

“I had been abused as a child and ran away from my home in California when I was 13,” Sr. Pauline, 70, said. “I was a chronic runaway, homeless and living on the streets of Los Angeles. I thought I would die there.”

Dominican Sr. Pauline Quinn of Marinette walks her service dog, Reni, prior to visiting the Oshkosh Correctional Institute. She recently began a guide dog training program for inmates similar to programs she started in other 40 prisons. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)

It was in the 1950s and in those days no one knew what to do with runaways, so authorities put them in adult psychiatric wards of hospitals, said Sr. Pauline, a Dominican nun now living in Marinette.

“I was thrown away in 14 different institutions, 36 different times. I was abused and tortured. They chained us to our beds and sometimes tied my hands behind my back and then tied them to my ankles,” said Sr. Pauline, whose childhood name was Kathy Quinn. “One day — maybe it was night, I don’t know because there were no windows and the lights were kept on all the time — I began praying to God. I prayed that if he would help me change my life, as payment to him I would dedicate my life to helping others.”

God answered her prayers, not through a sudden miracle, “but as a slow walk in faith that was laid out for me to follow,” she said.

That path began with meeting a stray German shepherd named Joni, a dog filled with the unconditional love needed by the young Kathy Quinn.

“Through Joni I learned about God’s love. She helped me build my self-esteem,” said Sr. Pauline, whose work in prisons with dogs was chronicled in the 2001 movie “Within These Walls,” starring Laura Dern of “Jurassic Park” fame.

Over the next five decades Sr. Pauline turned that meeting with Joni into a vocation, establishing through her program, “Pathways to Hope” dog obedience training programs at 40 prisons in 24 states and several foreign countries.

Pathways to Hope aims to help inmates provide basic training for guide and service dogs to benefit the disabled, as well as point some of the in-prison textiles programs towards training inmates to make emotional assistance vests for dogs.

“My hope is the inmates learn to become ‘other’ centered. They need to use the pain in their lives to focus on helping others. That will give meaning to the inmates own pain and suffering,” Sr. Pauline said.

Originally baptized a Mormon, Sr. Pauline became a Catholic in her early 20s after receiving instructions by a priest recovering from an illness in one of the hospitals in which she found herself confined.

Thirty years ago she took vows as a Dominican nun.

“Did you know the word Dominican comes from the Latin words ‘domini’ for God and ‘cani’ for dogs. Dominicans are dogs for God,” she said.

Sr. Pauline said she has worked like a dog for God.

An inmate at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, talks with Dominican Sr. Pauline Quinn, who helped start the prison’s Paws Forward program. (Steve Wideman | For The Compass)

She started her first prison dog program in 1981 at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women.

The Oshkosh program, called “Paws Forward,” uses inmates to provide obedience training to dogs destined for use as guide dogs for the blind. The program, begun in partnership with OccuPaws, a guide dog service near Madison, began in December of 2012.

Currently, five dogs — a golden retriever, two standard poodles and two Labrador retrievers — are being trained, each by two inmate trainers. Other inmates volunteer to be dog handlers and sitters when the trainers are busy with their regular prison jobs.

Community volunteers work to train the inmates and regularly take the dogs outside prison walls to socialize with the outside world.

Once obedience trained, the dogs will leave the prison and receive specialized guide dog training from community volunteers. The dogs are provided at no cost to blind people in need of a guide dog.

While being trained in prison the dogs live in large wire kennels located in the cells with the inmates.

“We’ve found the training program to be good for the inmates and our staff atmosphere,” said OSCI warden Judy Smith. “A lot of our inmates haven’t seen a dog for years. There’s something about a pet that changed the atmosphere of the institution.”

The prison converted a former kitchen area into a dog bathing and grooming area. A large area outside some of the resident buildings was converted into a run for the dogs.

All materials and time to establish and operate the program is donated and does not involve any taxpayer funds, Smith said. Inmates must still hold down a regular job within the prison.

Smith said inmate trainers are learning life skills.

“One of our main emphases in corrections is preparing the guys for release into the community. They’re learning potential job skills like dog grooming and training. They’re learning how to work with others, including someone they may not agree with,” she said.

Smith said the prison expects to expand Paws Forward to 15 dogs by the end of 2013. She said state corrections officials are considering establishing programs similar to Paws Forward in other Wisconsin prisons.

One inmate trainer, Todd, who was not allowed to give his last name, said it was “beyond awesome” to see, much less be cell partners with, his standard poodle.

“The first night I remember never really sleeping, but constantly looking over at the kennel. Seeing a dog in there was mind boggling,” Todd said.

“I think God has me where he wants me right now,” said another inmate trainer, David Chiappetta, a Catholic from Waukesha. “When I first got arrested I viewed it as a smack-down from God. But to have this opportunity in prison to do something good for the community is remarkable. This program allows us to give back to the community and to learn job skills like grooming and training. To do this type of work is part of God’s plan to help me.”

Chiappetta is a co-trainer for the golden retriever, named Pax, which is Latin for peace.

Pax will be a service dog for Sr. Pauline, replacing her current dog, a Doberman pinscher named Reni, who has cancer.

Sr. Pauline, who is currently working to establish a dog training program at California’s Folsom State Prison, credits God with steering her life to one of purpose and mission.

“God kept his word to me. I allow him to work in my life to move me in the direction he has planned, not what I have planned,” she said. “This is the Year of Faith and that is the key to my life. God will take care of everything, even if it might look bad.”

Currently, five dogs — a golden retriever, two standard poodles and two Labrador retrievers — are being trained, each by two inmate trainers. Other inmates volunteer to be dog handlers and sitters when the trainers are busy with their regular prison jobs.

Community volunteers work to train the inmates and regularly take the dogs outside prison walls to socialize with the outside world.

Once obedience trained, the dogs will leave the prison and receive specialized guide dog training from community volunteers. The dogs are provided at no cost to blind people in need of a guide dog.

While being trained in prison the dogs live in large wire kennels located in the cells with the inmates.

“We’ve found the training program to be good for the inmates and our staff atmosphere,” said OSCI warden Judy Smith. “A lot of our inmates haven’t seen a dog for years. There’s something about a pet that changed the atmosphere of the institution.”

The prison converted a former kitchen area into a dog bathing and grooming area. A large area outside some of the resident buildings was converted into a run for the dogs.

All materials and time to establish and operate the program is donated and does not involve any taxpayer funds, Smith said. Inmates must still hold down a regular job within the prison.

Smith said inmate trainers are learning life skills.

“One of our main emphases in corrections is preparing the guys for release into the community. They’re learning potential job skills like dog grooming and training. They’re learning how to work with others, including someone they may not agree with,” she said.

Smith said the prison expects to expand Paws Forward to 15 dogs by the end of 2013. She said state corrections officials are considering establishing programs similar to Paws Forward in other Wisconsin prisons.

One inmate trainer, Todd, who was not allowed to give his last name, said it was “beyond awesome” to see, much less be cell partners with, his standard poodle.

“The first night I remember never really sleeping, but constantly looking over at the kennel. Seeing a dog in there was mind boggling,” Todd said.

“I think God has me where he wants me right now,” said another inmate trainer, David Chiappetta, a Catholic from Waukesha. “When I first got arrested I viewed it as a smack-down from God. But to have this opportunity in prison to do something good for the community is remarkable. This program allows us to give back to the community and to learn job skills like grooming and training. To do this type of work is part of God’s plan to help me.”

Chiappetta is a co-trainer for the golden retriever, named Pax, which is Latin for peace.

Pax will be a service dog for Sr. Pauline, replacing her current dog, a Doberman pinscher named Reni, who has cancer.

Sr. Pauline, who is currently working to establish a dog training program at California’s Folsom State Prison, credits God with steering her life to one of purpose and mission.

“God kept his word to me. I allow him to work in my life to move me in the direction he has planned, not what I have planned,” she said. “This is the Year of Faith and that is the key to my life. God will take care of everything, even if it might look bad.”