Capitol Alert

These puppies have a ‘magical’ effect on a state prison. Can they help inmates change?

When a pair of puppies stepped into a state prison’s highest security yard on a scorching summer day, dozens of felons fretted that the Labradors would singe their feet on hot pavement.

“Pick them up! You’ve got to carry them. Watch out for their paws!” inmate Andre Ramnanan remembers his worried peers shouting at him.

Three months later, Ramnanan says the dogs still have a “magical” effect on the yard at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County. Sometimes, they even defuse fights.

“I’ve seen fights almost break out and then stop because someone says, ‘Wait, there’s a dog here,’ ” said Ramnanan, 43.

Ramnanan, serving life without parole for participating in a murder and kidnapping 24 years ago, is one of a handful of inmates enrolled in a program that gives prisoners a shot at redemption by asking them to nurture service dogs that one day will comfort wounded veterans or children with autism.

The program, called Tender Loving Canines, is among the wealth of new and restored rehabilitation courses that are popping up in California state prisons since Gov. Jerry Brown began boosting programs that help inmates prepare to re-enter society. Today, those programs are giving inmates more opportunities to study, work or pursue therapy than they were offered a decade ago when the state’s prisons were severely overcrowded.

They also provide a template for the reforms Brown is advocating with Proposition 57, his initiative to slim the state’s prison population by empowering parole boards to grant early releases for nonviolent inmates who better themselves while in confinement.

Inmates and their loved ones are following the measure closely. On a recent visit to Mule Creek State Prison, some inmates said it may speed their release.

“I wanted to join the program because it was helping the community, and I want to get back to the community,” said inmate Maurice Green, 37, who is participating in the service dog program. “Hopefully, if Prop. 57 passes, it’ll be next year.”

Polls have suggested the initiative has a good chance of passing, but it’ll have to overcome stiff opposition from the state’s law enforcement community.

Sheriffs and DAs fight Prop. 57

Many of the state’s district attorneys, sheriffs and local police unions are campaigning against it, arguing that the initiative could wind up freeing dangerous criminals and sex offenders despite the governor’s contention that only nonviolent felons could benefit from it.

Opponents have sent voters pamphlets with mugshots of criminals that read “meet your new neighbor.” Jaycee Dugard, who spent 18 years imprisoned by a parolee after she was kidnapped at age 11, also is urging a “no” vote.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is among the Prop. 57 critics who argue that Brown has not yet defined what criteria parole boards and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would use in weighing applications for early release.

She’s also troubled by recent releases of violent felons who have not had “meaningful rehabilitation” in prison under mandates that the state reduce its prison population.

Prop. 57 is “like saying, ‘We don’t know what the rules are and we’re going to play the game anyway,’ ” she said. “It’s a very serious game. We’re talking about the biggest change to the criminal justice system in 40 years.”

Back at Mule Creek, most inmates are realistic about their chances of receiving an early release. They expect to stay behind the razor wire-rimmed fences of state prisons for as long as their sentences require.

Ramnanan, for instance, says he “probably won’t ever go home.” His role in a 1992 murder means that he could not benefit from Prop. 57, which excludes homicide from the list of crimes that may lead to more parole opportunities.

Still, he and others appreciate the state’s recent investment in inmate rehabilitation programs and they’re optimistic that some of them may go home early if parole boards gain new powers.

Joseph Deshon, 37, a Mule Creek inmate with a 25-to-life sentence for a murder he committed at age 18, also expects to be in prison for many more years.

Yet he’s hopeful that his shift to volunteering through the service dog program and another one that brings troubled youths to the prison for talks with inmates may help him return to his family.

After 18 years without petting a dog, he said he’s inspired to stay on the right path by a puppy named Stuart, who will go on to help a disabled veteran.

“I actually got my life together even more,” Deshon said. “I’ve got to get it right. He’s not a regular pet.”

Rehab budget grows

Mule Creek State Prison contains about 3,500 inmates. It’s reserved for inmates who likely would be harmed by prisoners at other institutions, such as corrupt cops, felons who’ve separated themselves from gangs and sex offenders. It also houses inmates with special medical needs, such as prisoners who use wheelchairs.

In May, it opened two new wings that will allow it to house about 1,500 more inmates. So far, the $344 million project is at half capacity while the prison hires more medical and mental health workers to staff the new wards.

Like other prisons, it was extremely overcrowded before a series of court rulings beginning in 2009 compelled the state to direct thousands of new inmates to county jails. Brown as attorney general and earlier in his term as governor unsuccessfully appealed those decisions.

Since 2009, the state’s prison population has fallen from about 170,000 inmates to fewer than 129,000.

When Mule Creek was at its most-crowded, inmates slept in gymnasiums and in activity rooms, Lt. Angelo Gonzalez said. Back then, the prison didn’t have room for the rehabilitation programs that inmates are using now.

“We had so many inmates that the focus was on providing the basic necessities,” said Mule Creek Warden Joe Lizarraga.

Lately, Mule Creek has seen more inmates joining anger management and conflict resolution programs that Lizarraga has been able to fund through grants that support prisons in rural communities. Statewide, Brown has escalated funding for inmate rehabilitation from $355.2 million in 2011 to $481.5 million this year.

‘We’re rescues, too.’

Dogs are at the heart of two of Mule Creek’s most popular programs.

In the high-security yard, five young dogs are attached to inmates around the clock in the program that trains them to become service animals. They’re stars of the yard, threading crowds of well-tattooed inmates as they follow their mindful trainers.

In a lower-security wing, stray dogs from Amador County spend time with inmates until they become socialized and ready for adoption through local shelters.

Last week, inmate James Hardy had a breakthrough when a rambunctious pit bull he’s been minding suddenly started playing with a chihuahua. Until then, the two dogs had been enemies.

He identifies with the strays, recognizing that he, too, could use some help figuring out how to live better outside prison.

“They came from a rescue center. They’re a lot like us. I see us like we’re rescues, too,” said Hardy, 40, of Sacramento, who has been in and out of prison for the last 20 years. He’s serving seven years for vehicle theft.

Cherie Flores, one of the service dog training instructors from Tender Loving Canines, said inmates and puppies are a good match. She visits twice a week, coaching the inmates on how to prepare the dogs for a lifetime of service.

“This is amazing for them and for the dogs,” she said. “These guys have nothing but time and structure. Puppies need time and structure. This is everything for them.”

Lizarraga makes a point to spend time with the service dogs in Tender Loving Canines. Some members of his staff had reservations about putting the dogs in the prison’s highest security wing. He thought it was worth a chance, to see if the dogs would change the atmosphere.

“It’s our most violent yard. What better place to put a program that had the potential to calm the yard down? It’s done a tremendous job,” he said.

Ramnanan said he joined the program in part because he wanted to “atone” for the 1992 murder that sent him to prison. In the past, he used to sit in his cell and “be angry at the world.”

Lately, he pays close attention to a puppy named Amador, turning a fan on her when she pants at night.

“It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he said. “You find an attachment and someone needs you. It’s a good feeling.”

Editor’s Note: This story was changed at 10 a.m. Nov. 2, 2016 to reflect that the prison overcrowding was alleviated largely by directing new inmates to county facilities.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton