How Having a Dog Changed My Life in Prison
Until now, touching another living thing took place in the context of fights, pat-downs, and strip searches.
An inmate in another Michigan prison hangs with his service dog. (J. Scott Park/Jackson Citizen Patriot via AP)
Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.
I sat in my prison's stark visiting room anxiously waiting. My eyes kept drifting away from me, toward the room's battered steel door. My fingers tapped out some tune on the armrest of my chair. I couldn't seem to stop fidgeting.
"What's taking them so long?" my cellmate, Steven, whispered. His knee bounced like a jackhammer.
Steven is 21, and I'm 41. Surprisingly, we have a lot in common, mostly because I landed in prison at the same age he is now. In here, it's not possible to grow up, to mature—time freezes for us. I know that's difficult for a free person to grasp, but it's true. We're all a bunch of Peter Pans.
"I don't know," I replied.
I glanced around the visiting room at all the other convicts. Very few spoke. Some smiled nervously. Almost all of them eyed the door in anticipation of what was coming.
Outside, mechanical gates clanged open and shut; announcements blared from loudspeakers; officers shouted back-and-forth through the thick, bulletproof glass surrounding the control center.
But where we were, all was quiet. A cough here. A grunt there. Some random tapping of fingers and toes. The soft hum of the (extremely overpriced) vending machines.
Then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement through one of the windows facing a hallway. I took a deep breath and nudged Steven's foot with my own.
It was time.
The door opened, and a massive, slobbering dog leapt in, dragging an officer by its leash. Three more dogs followed, two of them yellow and one black, each also dragging an officer—including the warden and the deputy warden. Then came a smaller, brown labrador that seemed both scared and curious.
I stood up, pointing, "May I have that one?"
The dog reminded me of my first day in Michigan's most notorious prison. I'll never forget the moment I stepped into a cellblock—I could practically feel all the convicts staring at me.
The assistant deputy warden handed me the leash, and Steven and I both began petting the nervous little creature.
This was the launch of our prison's new service-dog program, where we train dogs to help veterans and people with PTSD, and we were all embarrassingly excited. I'd already trudged my way through 20 years of my long prison sentence, with each day identical to the next. Family members had slowly passed away or forgotten about me. Friends I'd come to care about had been transferred to other facilities. But here was this dog, smelling like something real and living—something I hadn't smelled in two decades.
An older woman dressed in civilian clothes knelt before us, smiling. "Her name is Maui," the woman said. "Try to keep this collar as high as you can on her neck. You'll be able to control her better."
The woman quickly moved on to other convicts.
Speeches were given. Rules set. Questions asked and answered. Then we were let loose on the yard with our dogs in tow. Maui soon took over, dragging me forward, wanting to bury her nose in everything, to taste everything, to see everything in a place that had long since become lifeless to me.
Back in the unit, I led her toward her new home. She'd been frightened by the metal grating between the building's outer and inner doors, the hard steps leading to our subterranean floor. I was forced to carry her during the final stretch.
That afternoon, we all chatted and examined our new dogs:
"What's your dog's name?"
"You got a boy or a girl?"
"Feel how soft mine is."
"Mine smells funny."
"They're supposed to smell funny."
"Sit, Niko, sit," commanded Rodriguez, my neighbor. His eyes went wide. "Hey, look, mine knows how to sit!
The rest of us spent the next five minutes trying to discover what our dogs could do—until the cops made us lock down for count. So goes life in prison: Head count, head count, head count.
"Doesn't this feel strange to you?" Steven asked a few minutes later. "Almost like a dream?"
It did feel strange. For two decades, I'd lived life around nothing but angry inmates and vindictive corrections officers. Up until that point, touching another living thing took place in the context of bloody fights, degrading pat-downs, and dignity-crushing strip searches.
Here I stood now with that little creature nuzzling up against me. Her bright, golden eyes seemed to say, "If you'll let me, I'll love you. I promise."
Jerry Metcalf, 41, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.