First Michigan prison therapy dog makes a difference

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Sadie is full of life, loving and energetic. She lives at the correctional facility in Whitmore Lake. It is there you'll find the state's most severely mentally ill and often dangerous prisoners, many of whom should arguably be in what used to be called mental hospitals when they existed in larger numbers.

Sadie is Michigan's first live-in prison therapy dog. Not only is she having a positive influence on the prisoners, but she's also saving the state a lot of money. 

Richard Greer is a convicted murderer who has been diagnosed as a delusional schizophrenic. He calls himself Bishop Carebear.

FOX 2: "You murdered someone, correct?"

"If you want to call it that," he said.

He tried to cut his life sentence short, by taking his own. His limited joy comes mostly from his faith, that which he can't see or touch but feels within. And having an earthly surrogate of innocence, of non-judgement, also helps -- and that comes from Sadie.

FOX 2: "That dog makes you smile?"

"She is wonderful," Greer said. "You're the best."

Corrections Officer John Hassen came up with the idea of Sadie as a warm heart with a cold nose making the rounds in a hardcore environment.

"I have seen what dogs have done with PTSD, how they react to mental illness," said Hassen.

Warden Jodie DeAngelo admits at first she was skeptical. 

"I was worried about the safety of the dog and the prisoners and how that was going to work out, and [if] the dog appropriate for this level of intensive care that we have," she said. 

She gave Officer Hassen the green light to "launch the leash." With the help of Stiggy's Dogs, an organization that rescues and trains therapy dogs, the Woodland Correctional Center would soon meet their newest treatment partner.

Sadie was to be the very first live-in prison dog in the entire state of Michigan. And the mentally ill prisoners, many of whom haven't been exposed to a dog in decades, would get a new friend. 

"Basically she gives me something to look forward to," said Carl Fields. 

Fields, a paranoid schizophrenic, has spent most of his life behind bars for shooting his wife. As he nears the end of his sentence, he never expected he would experience this.

"Sadie helped me in ways (like) my emotional center, she helped me become more aware of that," he said. 

Flanked by her prison handlers, Sadie goes to work every day visiting each inmate.

Billie Miles hadn't spoken a word and spent his days buried under a blanket until he met Sadie.

Lancelot Peebles suffers from schizophrenia and mood disorder symptoms. He has been cutting himself for years.

"When I do it, it relieves this pain and it feels good," he said. "After a while I have to do it again. I haven't done it in 4 or 5 months. Sadie has been helping me a lot, too. She listens, she does real awesome tricks and I get to hug on her and stuff."

But it's more than smiles, treats and hugs. What few could have predicted from a pilot program that had never been tried in the state's correctional matrix: the taxpayer is saving money.

In the nine months that Sadie has been living inside the prison, the facility - which once had the highest number of emergency room runs - now has the lowest.

Dr. Terry White, who works at Woodland, says the therapy dog has saved the state a ton of money.

"People in the state of Michigan should realize this dog has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the general sense of calm that pervades," he said. "People look forward to that as you've heard several of them say. They don't want to do things that would cause them to lose their privileges and not being able to have contact with the dog. 

"Because of that, self-injuries have gone down." 

"I don't want to leave her; I can't leave her," said Richard Bouse, trained inmate handler. "She has made a huge impact."

Just nine months later, the impact of Sadie's unconditional affection has surpassed all expectations.

"I would take her in and I would think to myself I hope they don't hurt the dog," Hassen said. "But to watch them go from super dangerous way down to very passive with the dog. They will protect that dog before themselves."

It's gone so well, Woodland is looking to get Sadie a partner.

"I have never in 24 years seen such a healthy, caring bond while incarcerated as I do when I see prisoners interact with Sadie," DeAngelo said. "It has been remarkable."

Sadie and the therapy dog program is supported by the Prisoner Benefit fund and donations. 

Sadie has done a great job in her role; she has even been nominated employee of the month.