11/13/2013 - Road Trip to Rayburn Correctional Center
We got an early start at 9:30 a.m., picking up another student photographer, Rachel, who was doing a project of her own about the guys. Spending 2 hours in the car, I got to learn a lot about Bill and Rachel. They get along like a big brother and little sister, always busting each other's chops. Bill is a minister and a religious guy, but he can get his jabs in and he isn't overbearing about his beliefs. It was a great start to the day, and the friendly, casual conversation made me immediately comfortable with people I had just met.
After arriving at the prison we loaded our gear and entered the building to go through security. We gave our names to the guard who informed me that I wasn't on the list of approved visitors. I mentioned that I had been communicating with the Warden and Deputy Warden, but neither of them were there, so they had to do a background check on the spot. It was a little inconvenient, and I was more upset that I was holding everyone up. Bill got a little testy with the guard when she admonished him for not informing them "ahead of time", even though we all had and the breakdown in communications was theirs. After I was cleared, we had our pat downs, bags scanned and we were off to meet the guys.
When we got to the training building, "the doghouse", the guys chided Bill for being late. Of course it wasn't his fault, but it was neat to see how they all interact and the sense of camaraderie between them. They are there to do a job, but they're also friendly with one another and they're very caring toward their dogs. The trainers are called C.A.T.S. which stands for Canine Assessment Training Specialist, and they wear fluorescent vests that state the title and the website so they are easily visible among the other men who are not in the program. After Bill explained why I was there, we met the guys and their dogs. This group of dogs had been in the program for 1 week, and at that point they had learned to sit, stay, give paw, etc. I found out the dogs stay with the men 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The guys are responsible for tracking how much they eat, when they go to the bathroom, their progress with commands, the time it takes them to master commands, and any other observations they might have. They write reports on their assessments of the animal that are pretty detailed. Bill gave me some copies to read, which I think will shed some light on how I might approach this from an artistic standpoint.
After class everyone goes in the yard to run around and play. The area is separate from genii pop, but everyone can see across the fencing. While the men in the program are very respectful and sweet, the guys in genii pop can be a little more rough with their language and aggressiveness. I spoke to a couple of the C.A.T.S. in the yard, and Quan was probably the most vocal on how the program has affected him. He said that he values the program because when everyone else in his life has abandoned him, family, friends, etc., the dog never judges him and cares for him unconditionally. He gets satisfaction from feeling like he's contributing something positive to the outside world. When I asked him about the sleeping situation, where the dogs are crated under their cots, he said, "I don't don't like putting him to bed, because I know what it's like to be in a cage." That statement really affected me.
I don't know any of the crimes the men have committed as individuals. I do know they run the gamut from drugs to rape to serial killing. The only type of criminal not accepted into the program is one who has animal or child abuse on their record. The prison is also very strict about the rules to participate, which means that if anyone gets written up even once, they are out of the program. As a result, the program has experienced a 50% turnover in C.A.T.S. since it started a year ago.
When I was there, I didn't think or ask about the reasons the guys were in prison. The only thing I cared about was capturing the relationship between the men and the dogs, and the positive impact it has on both. I think I accomplished that for my first time out, but I plan on analyzing things a little more and honing my idea for eventually making this a gallery installment. The next plan is to revisit the prison right after the new year, as well as take a trip to the ladies' prison for their program. In the meantime, I'm developing a Marketing Plan for DoggoneExpress and its programs, to include logos, website, grant applications, presentations and more photos for marketing. 2014 is going to be a busy year, but I can't wait to get started on it. Moving to New Orleans will really help to keep my efforts moving along, so I'm excited for things to come.